By Jayne Hugo Davis
“When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”
This quote is attributed to an unnamed philosopher in the first century. I don’t know what caused this person to be up at midnight. Probably the same things that keep me wide awake in the middle of the night. Fear. Worry. Problems that ensnare my thinking like a tangled net. Revisiting a regret. Rehearsing tomorrow’s trouble.
Darkness calls out to our deepest fears with a taunting narrative that we are helpless or hopeless or alone. Fear says this darkness is our story. Faith lights a candle and says, “I beg to differ.”
I have always loved the Advent season. In the Moravian tradition of my childhood, it meant singing the Hosanna chorale in worship, trimming the yellow beeswax candles in red crepe paper for the Christmas Eve service and lighting the candles of the Advent wreath each week. It was the perfect combination of festive and holy and was always filled with joyful anticipation.
At the heart of Advent, though, is not sentiment, but resistance. It is not a mere countdown to Christmas, despite the calendar filled with delicious candy treats, but a testimony, a witness. In the darkness of winter when all seems barren, we light a candle — a small, fragile flame that whispers, “I beg to differ.”
This Advent we need little reminder that the world can be a dark place. Violence is very present and unpredictable. Suffering is all around and layers deep. Hostility and hate, prejudice and polarizing words are far too common, and not just in Facebook posts. Some of that darkness is by our own words, our own keystrokes, our own fear.
But we dare not live as if that is the whole story.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
When John wrote those words, when Jesus told each of his followers, “You are the light of the world,” there were no spotlights or power grids or generators. There were no flood lights. Just small candles, and flickering flames. Vulnerable to being snuffed out. Repeatedly and persistently called to dispel darkness anywhere someone was courageous and foolish enough to light a candle and say, “I beg to differ.”
In our worship during Advent we light candles of hope, peace, love and joy. What about in the rest of our week? In our conversations? In our conflicts? In the struggles arounds us and within us?
Do we believe that the light of one candle matters?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of South Africans placing lit candles in their windows as a sign of their protest against apartheid and a symbol of their hope and belief in a different future. Many would call such an act futile and foolish. But South Africans prayed and lit candles and said, “I beg to differ.” So powerful and unsettling was their collective voice that the government passed a law making it illegal to light a candle and place it in your window. Apartheid was eventually dismantled.
The candle of Hope.
My college roommate left our apartment quickly one afternoon with a first aid kit in hand. I watched from the kitchen window as she tended again to Starr, a homeless man who spent most of each day in front of the church next door. Alcoholism and life on the street made open sores a chronic problem for Starr and Margie hated to see him suffer. Many would call her actions naïve and wasted. But every time she saw him she lit a candle and said, “I beg to differ.”
The candle of Love.
The disciples wanted Jesus to lead a revolution. Instead, he sent them out two by two and told them to love and to heal. We, too, want a faith that demonstrates power but Jesus says, “One small flame is all I need from you.”
We are not called to fix the world; we are called to be light — again, and again, and again. To reflect the divine reality; to reject the narrative of fear and division and hopelessness and to say with our words and our lives, “I beg to differ.”
How else will the world know that darkness does not have the final word?