A Message from the Dean: Advent Light

DECEMBER 1, 2013

On the first day of Advent, as the home wreath is lit, a prayer offered says, “As our nights grow longer and our days grow short, we look on these earthly signs – light and green branches – and remember God's promise to our world: Christ, our Light and our Hope, will come.” Then Isaiah the prophet (9:1-2) is recalled:

The people that walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those who lived in a land as dark as death
a light has dawned.
You have increased their joy
and given them gladness;
They rejoice in your presence
as those who rejoice at harvest,
as warriors exult when dividing spoil.

Because life is not fair, bad things can happen to good people. So it is not very hard to become angry and bitter. Even a good run of luck can strangely lead to periods of arrogance as we may feel that we actually are so special that we’re entitled to the great things that happen to “come our way.” It’s not just that “pride comes before the fall” as so many traditions teach in different ways. Perhaps even more importantly, we can become as isolated in success as in failure, as cut off from others in good times as in not so good times. Thornton Wilder wrote that “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

It grieves me to think that many of our young people have lost sight of the light. How do we try to grasp the hideous increase in what’s called “The Knockout Game?” Take as an example a 78-year-old woman strolling in her neighborhood in this City was punched in the head by a stranger and tumbled to the ground. Or in Washington, a 32-year-old woman swarmed by teenagers on bikes – one then hit her in the face. Or in Jersey City, where a 46-year-old man died after someone sucker-punched him and he struck his head on an iron fence. In "knockout games” the object is to target unsuspecting pedestrians with the intention of knocking them out cold with one punch.

Authorities and psychologists say these incidents represent a “tradition” that has been around for years. Experts say the game is “played mostly by impulsive teenage boys looking to impress their friends.” Psychologist Jeffrey Butts has said, "It's hard to excuse this behavior, there's no purpose to this." Butts, who specializes in juvenile delinquency at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, offered this contrast: “When someone runs into a store and demands money, you can sort of understand why they're doing it, desperation, whatever. But just hitting someone for the sheer thrill of seeing if you can knock someone out is just childish.” But this type of senseless and wanton violence against a stranger connotes far more than childishness.

I hope Elie Wiesel is correct in saying, “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.” Of course, as a Holocaust survivor he knows and has lived the truth of such thankfulness. I’m just hoping that Wiesel is right in saying no one who comes out of darkness can fail to be thankful. That would mean our task is to navigate the darkness – for ourselves and with others. This is where our faith traditions enter with bold assertions that we can be resources. First, we acknowledge and learn not to be afraid of the darkness. We believe that the Creator is also the God of the Darkness, and that Light cannot be overwhelmed ultimately by darkness. We believe that things knocked down can be built back up, the old can be made new, the impossible made possible, even what has died given new life. We have for centuries and centuries navigated the darkness and believed in endeavoring to restore Light. Irving Berlin, who shaped the American culture with his lyrics and music, wrote about access to the light, saying: “Got no check books, got no banks. Still I'd like to express my thanks – I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.” I grew up with a prayer which expresses that hope in this way: “Lighten the darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord.”

We bear witness to the Light in our sacred stories. It is commended in those scriptures and in our prayers. We illustrate the Light in the saintly and heroic lives we hold up against the dark and to illume our paths. May God bless you as you navigate the darkness this Advent and move toward the Light.