Advent Riffs, Fourth Sunday: Signs of Our Times

advent candles

Photo by Alex Harden, licensed under Creative Commons.

On Snelling Avenue, reindeer antlers grow from the side windows of a small red car. They seem part of the general merriment of the season, the feeling of Christmas that Bing Crosby sang about:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas. [Silver Bells]

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we are told:

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky! (Isaiah 7:11)

From reindeer cars to silver bells, we have plenty of signs.

  • Christmas trees glitter, strings of lights blink from fences and roof-tops. Prison razor wire flashes silver in the sun. My brother, and 2.3 million others, live behind that razor wire. This country, my country, imprisons more people than any other country in the world.
  • Lights glow from windows along St. Paul streets, signaling warmth and shelter and home. In Minneapolis, a teepee marks the site of a former homeless encampment, signaling reoccupation of the site and reminding us of the continuing lack of housing for Native Americans and others throughout the city, state, country.
  • The smell of gingerbread cookies fills my kitchen. Shoppers fill grocery store aisles, preparing for the feasts of the season. In this rich country, one in six people does not have enough food to eat.
  • My daily walks take me past “All Are Welcome” signs planted in my neighbors’ snowy front yards. But some of my friends still live in daily fear of arrest and deportation. They have families here, jobs, homes, lives—but none of this makes a difference in a system that gives them no line to stand in, no way forward, no chance to get the magic green card.
  • And across the border, tens of thousands of mothers and fathers and children wait, forced to live in daily danger as they wait for their asylum claims to be heard.

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky! (Isaiah 7:11)

Signs of light and signs of darkness. We have no shortage of signs. What do we do with these contrasting, contradictory, challenging signs?

More than a century and a half ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem that we know as a familiar Christmas carol:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s poem included verses left out of the Christmas carol, verses that voice his despair in the midst of the Civil War:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

From the depths of a despair that seems like our own, Longfellow found hope:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Can we hear those bells? Can we believe that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail?” That faith is hard to keep.

A.J. Muste, a pacifist and activist,  organized and participated in protests against the Vietnam War. When asked whether he thought his candlelight vigil outside the White House could actually change policies, Muste replied: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

His message resonates with me. I need to continue to speak and protest, rather than allowing the evil emanating from the White House to drive me into despair. Reading the signs of our times, I look for ways to work for the right to prevail, to hold fast to hope in the face of despair.


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