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hope is kindled

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Today, we light the candle of hope.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the religious season leading up to Christmas. If you’ve been in a church in December you’ve probably seen the wreath with the five candles in it, which are part of the liturgy at this time of year – you light one on the first week, add a second for the second week, etc.

At least in the Methodist church, the candles traditionally have themes represented by each candle. I’ve decided that as a kind of spiritual exercise in the weeks leading up to Christmas I will try to be more conscious of the things that give me whatever that weekly theme is. You know, like people in November who posted things they were thankful for leading up to Thanksgiving. I’m not saying that I’ll post it every day, but I’m going to make a real effort to think about it, be conscious of it, even if I don’t write it out or anything. (I may end up mentioning things that are particularly meaningful, but this is mainly for me.) In the Methodist church, the first candle symbolizes hope, so this week I will be trying to be conscious of those things that are particularly meaningful for me.

In many ways, this is ridiculously easy. The Hobbit is just around the corner, and I’m actually mooting this weekend with a friend in Massachusetts to see the original trilogy on the big screen. This is something to hope for, to look forward to, if ever there was one. It is, in a very real sense, my own unexpected party; I mean, I was looking forward to the movie but it’s nice to make more of an event of it. I’m also setting up meetings with people regarding my dissertation, starting to make progress on that front, so I’m really getting more and more hopeful about the future.

But in the Christian tradition, at least the Methodist church hope isn’t some kind of touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy feeling that everything’s going to be okay. This week we actually read one of my least favorite readings in the Advent liturgy, Isaiah 1. One sample:

Why should you be stricken again?
You will revolt more and more.
The whole head is sick,
And the whole heart faints.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
There is no soundness in it,
But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores;
They have not been closed or bound up,
Or soothed with ointment.

Where exactly is the hope in that? It’s hardly the making of a Hallmark card. But the hope for me comes from the fact that, in the text, we cannot make up for these past wrongs but we also don’t have to. In the text, God rebukes the Israelites for offering lots of empty sacrifices for things they’ve done wrong (“Bring no more futile sacrifices: incense is an abomination to me.”) Instead,

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.”

Basically, don’t do it again. Forget the past because there is no making up for it, and the repeated sacrifices are just proof to God that, once more, sacrifice was necessary. When I heard this passage as a child I found it truly weird – this was hope? We were starting the Christmas season, pristine white snow and trees decked out in white and gold and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes – with this? With wounds and bruises and putrefying sores? But as I’ve grown up, I’ve been struck by what a countercultural version of hope this passage contains. It’s not about having a clean start; rather, it’s about not needing one. This is where we get probably the most quoted passage from this Sunday’s reading.

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.

As I read this, the message I get is essentially: don’t preoccupy yourself with your own sinfulness. Don’t focus on making up for what you’ve already done wrong. God does not want sacrifices, regrets – He wants true repentance. A turning-away, a sincere effort at not doing it again. And when you fall down once more (because we are all human, and even with God’s help repentance and growth is always a stumbling process) … don’t say you’re sorry in the sense of focusing what you’ve done wrong again. Just try once more to do better. It’s a focus on the future not on the past. Which of course is at the heart of hope and Advent generally. This is a thought that I have framed in rather religious terms, but I think it’s worth taking seriously even if you’re not religious or simply a different religion. So maybe it’s worth thinking about what kind of thing gives you hope, and what it means to truly look forward to the future for you?

Reading this passage right now, I also have definite thoughts on war, peace and the Gaza conflict in particular. I may come back to that if I have time, because this Bible passage definitely seems relevant in a way I hadn’t keyed into before.

As an aside, I’m aware that if you’ve grown up around Christian fundamentalism or even evangelicalism and certain strains of Calvinist (Baptist/Presbyterian/etc.) thought… this may seem a strange way of thinking about repentance. A lot of strands of Christianity focus on the sinfulness of us, the abject evil that is humanity’s “fallen nature” so that none of us can be good through our own efforts. We can never make up for what we did. And I’m not going to deny that that’s the way a lot of Christians parse topics like that. I do believe my approach is in the texts and in traditional Christian writers if you know where to look. I just don’t want this to come across as whitewashing more accusatory, negative ways of looking at human nature and forgiveness. I’m not saying all Christians think about these topics, in this way, though I guess I am saying I wish they would. IMO it’s a better way of approaching them.

Enough of the religious heaviness. :-) I did want to share some fannish things on the topic of hope. First, what meditation on hope would be complete without the great hope is kindled scene from The Return of the King? Looking at it as a beat in book!Gondor’s history, I hate it. In the movies it never ceases to bother me. But viewed in isolation (and particularly if I blink at just the right moment to avoid Denethor’s grimace) I can’t deny it’s beautiful and encouraging.

I also wrote an advent ficlet series back in 2010, based around the five themes of advent and focusing on the women of Gondor and Rohan. I’ve always loved those ficlets so I thought I’d share them.


In the Depths of Winter

Aragorn, as the new king of Gondor and Arnor Reunited, ushered in a new age of peace – and, Gondor quite naturally hoped, the beginnings of a new dynasty. But just because something is expected does not mean it will come easily. (Arwen-centric.)

Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to Lady Branwyn who’s doing an advent calendar where she posts a Tolkien illustration every day. The first illustration is a double-goody: a Tolkienian eagle, drawn by JRRT. This promises to be fun, and a great way to reconnect with my Tolkien roots. As much as I’m looking forward to the new movie, I’m sure there are things I won’t like so I may need a bit of fortification heading into it.

Doing anything special for Advent on your blog, either regularly or just a one-off meditation? Drop me a link and if I think it fits with what I’m writing about I’ll include it.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
I adore the beacon sequence, particularly the way the music works with it (For all that the screenplay slaughters the characterization of Gondor, Howard Shore's theme and the Alan Lee-inspired art direction does the aesthetic aspects beautifully, imo. I'm just going to pretend that Denethor did order the beacons lit, after all. La, la, la! Anyway, we've already had this conversation so I won't belabor it anymore.)

Not Advent per se, of course, but along the theme of light symbols and sequential observations, I was thinking about doing a Chanukah-inspired drabble series. Tolkien's works, of course, lend themselves easily to the theme of light in dark places, and particularly among the wreckage of war.

I have to admit I'm pretty ignorant about Advent customs, so thank you for sharing this.
Dec. 2nd, 2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
At least in my churches, Advent was always structured like the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - you know, a time to examine where you are with God, make amends, prepare for the new year, that kind of thing. It's a really beautiful time of the year, and while I hate Christmas's commercialism, I always liked the churchy parts of December. Good food, good music, and a really optimistic and peaceful feel to the liturgy.

There are lots of different traditions, but the Advent wreath is one of my favorite. You usually light it on Sunday nights as a family or at Sunday services. I don't have an actual Advent wreath, but I did go out and get some candles and will light one tonight. You just do it once a week throughout the month, not just the week of Channukah like you do in Judaism. One of my other favorite traditions is the idea of Advent gifts. Parents get small gifts that kids get to unwrap during the month, one a day. They're usually cheap toys or things the kid needs like socks, but it was great fun anticipating them. I've got a basket of gifts all wrapped up for the kid upstairs I sometimes babysit for.

If you do write that Chanukah drabble series, would you comment here with a link? I'd love to read it, of course, but I'd also love to post a link.
Dec. 3rd, 2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
At least in my churches, Advent was always structured like the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - you know, a time to examine where you are with God, make amends, prepare for the new year, that kind of thing

Wasn't Advent once known as "the Lent of Christmas" for exactly that reason?

And also big agreement with dreamflower02 downthread - I love "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." So stately and measured and beautiful.

Edited at 2012-12-03 01:55 pm (UTC)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 03:27 pm (UTC)
I didn't know that, but it makes sense. The odd thing is that for some reason Advent seemed more about personal inventory + growth than even Lent. Lent is about self-sacrifice, but for me Advent was always the time to take a long hard look in the mirror.
Dec. 4th, 2012 01:07 am (UTC)
Thank you for that explanation! I can see why you enjoy observing Advent, and why it is meaningful to you. The main thing I always associate with Advent was calendars, of course, and the little toys or candies that some of my friends would get as kids.

If I end up doing those drabbles, I will post a link--at this point, I can't make any promises as to whether they'll actually get written since Chanukah coincides with finals this year. :p Still, I will try!
Dec. 10th, 2012 01:51 am (UTC)
Chanukah drabbles
In case you're still interested, the first one is here:

Dec. 3rd, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
With you on the music for that sequence. I know all the Pippin-scrambling-up-the-beacon stuff is Made Of Wrongness; but that fantastic chasing motif up and down the strings, as the light leaps from one peak to another, is fabulous enough that I forgive all the plot preamble. (Rather like altariel, I increasingly find myself using the Howard Shore and Alan Lee/John Howe bits of the movies as the backdrops for the fanfic in my head.)

And I love the sound of that drabble series - do, do! My drabble muse is utterly AWOL at the moment and I'm finding that disconcerting, so it would be lovely to have someone else's to read.
Dec. 4th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Yes, I like to think that that sequence captures the spirit of my!Gondor, if not, erm, the letter. Truly, Howard Shore's score is one of my favorite aspects of the films, and I'm excited to hear him return to Middle-earth in The Hobbit.
Dec. 3rd, 2012 02:43 am (UTC)
I have always loved Advent. When our son was young, we had Advent at home each Sunday after supper, lighting our own Advent wreath and reading from the Bible. But as time went by my husband often had to work on Sunday (as he does now EVERY Sunday) and our son was older and had less interest--the custom fell by the way.

But I enjoy the Sunday Advent services. Today we had a blessing for the Chrismon tree in addition to the Advent candle lighting. The church we attend has a custom of choosing a different family each Sunday to light the wreath and do the reading. Today was a single mom and her daughter. Next Sunday it will be an elderly retired couple...

And I love the hymns of Advent. "Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel..."
Dec. 3rd, 2012 03:38 am (UTC)
That's gonna be SO much better on big screen!!!!

*squeal excitedly*

That scene was so much... vaster... in the movie than it was in my imagination, reading the books. I LOVE it.
Dec. 3rd, 2012 07:05 am (UTC)
I liked your interpretation of Isaiah.

The scene of the beacons and the light moving across the mountains was one of my favourites in the cinema.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )



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