Lighting an Advent candle

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, Christians there used to light candles and place them in their windows as a sign to themselves and others that they believed that someday this injustice would end. A candle burning in a window was a sign of hope and a political statement. The government didn’t miss the message. It passed a law making it illegal to place a lit candle in a window, the offense being equal to owning a firearm; both were considered equally dangerous. This eventually became a joke among the kids: “Our government is afraid of lit candles!”

And well they should be! Lit candles, more than firearms, overthrew apartheid. Hope, not guns, is what ultimately transforms things. To light a candle as an act of hope is to say to yourself and to others that, despite anything that might be happening in the world, you are still nursing a vision of peace and unity that’s based upon something beyond the present state of things and upon deeper realities and powers than what the world admits. To light a candle is to state publicly that you believe that, at the end of the day, more than what you see on the evening news will shape the final outcome of things. There are other powers also at work. To light a candle is an act of political defiance and an act of hope.

What is hope?

First, it’s not wishful thinking. I can wish to win a lottery, but that wish, in itself, contains no real power to make it happen. Second, hope is not simply temperamental optimism, an upbeat temperament that always sees the bright side of things. An unwavering optimism about things can sometimes be helpful, but it’s no basis for hope; like wishful thinking it lacks the power to make its own dream come true. Finally, hope is not simply shrewd observation and common sense, a talent for sorting out the real from the fluff. Useful as this is, it’s still not hope. Why not?

Because hope doesn’t base itself upon a shrewd assessment of the empirical facts, but upon belief in a deeper set of realities: God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness and the promise that flows from that.

There’s a story told about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that helps illustrate this. Teilhard wasn’t much given to wishful thinking or even to an optimistic temperament; he tended rather toward a lonely realism. Yet he was a man of real hope. For example, on one occasion, after giving a conference where he laid out a vision within which ultimately unity and peace will be achieved on earth in a way that parallels the vision of scripture, he was challenged by some colleagues to this effect: “That’s a wonderful, idealistic vision of things, but suppose we blow up the world with a nuclear bomb, what happens to your vision then?” Teilhard replied, “that would set things back some millions of years, but this will still come to fruition, not because I say so or because the facts right now indicate that it will, but because God promised it and in the resurrection of Jesus has shown that He is powerful enough to deliver on that promise.”

Hope, as we can see from this, requires both faith and patience. It works like yeast, not like a microwave oven. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, expresses this colorfully: “All politicians are alike,” he says, “they hold a finger up and check which way the wind is blowing and then make their decisions in that direction. That will never change, even if we change politicians. So, we must change the wind! That’s hope’s task – to change the wind!”

When we look at what has morally changed this world – from the great religious traditions coming out of deserts, caves, and catacombs and helping leaven whole cultures morally, to apartheid being overthrown in South Africa – we see that it has happened precisely when individuals and groups lit candles and hoped long enough until the wind changed.

We light Advent candles with just that in mind, accepting that changing the wind is a long process, that the evening news will not always be positive, the stock markets will not always rise, the most sophisticated defenses in the world will not always protect us from terrorism, and secular liberal and conservative ideologies will not rid this planet of selfishness.

However, we continue to light candles and hope anyway, not on the basis of a worsening or improving evening newscast, but because the deepest reality of all is that God exists, that the center holds, that there’s ultimately a gracious Lord who rules this universe, and this Lord is powerful enough to rearrange the atoms of the planet and raise dead bodies to new life. We light candles of hope because God, who is the ultimate power, has promised to establish a kingdom of love and peace on this earth and is gracious, forgiving and powerful enough to eventually make it happen.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website