“Rise! Shine! For the light is a-comin’!
“My Lord says he’s comin’ by and by.”
The words of the African American spiritual speak to the central theme of Advent and especially to this first Sunday. It is a firm declaration to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” for as we read in Mark, “the Son of Man” is coming with “great power and glory.”
Let us be clear: the God depicted here is not a serene and docile deity. Isaiah calls upon a potent God who would “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake.” And our actions in response to this coming should be no less robust.
At first look, we welcome such a dominating and mighty God to respond to our needs and concerns. Yet we who believe in a divine being from whom all things flow, also know that such a transcendent force can “bend history.” Put bluntly, if we are not prepared for God’s response to our prayers for the Creator’s presence, the appearance of the divine can be unsettling and threatening to our very lives and our very order. Such a forceful manifestation can bring about significant change. Our desire for the Lord’s coming brings with it risk as well as reward.
There is a little-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm entitled “Der Mond,” or in English, “The Moon.” It is a short tale that was adapted by the German composer Carl Orff into an opera in one act. It involves four young rowdy misfits from a land where there is no light – no sun in the day and no moon or stars at night. These are people who “walk in darkness.” Sound familiar?
These lads travel to another land where they find the moon hanging on a tree. They steal the moon and bring it back to their land where they charge people money for their use of the moonlight. Eventually, as happens to all of us, they grow old and die. As each one dies, one quarter of the moon is cut away and buried with one of its owners until there is no more light. In the opera, Petrus, “who rules the sky,” descends to the dead (sound familiar?) and retrieves the four pieces of the moon and hangs it in the sky for the benefit of all.
Yes, this tale is a modern retelling of the age-old belief that God brings light to the people who, in the words of the prophet, “walk in darkness.” Yes, this is about the season of Advent, which alludes to an arrival, a beginning. It is best understood as a dawning, as in the early morn of a new day. Yes, like the four misfits, this is a time when we come upon and marvel in a new Light. Yes, like the four young men, we can hoard and hide the light. And yes, we, like Petrus in Carl Orff’s opera, are called to share this light with the world.
There is an intrinsic understanding that, no matter what, we welcome the coming of the Lord and that it can happen at any time. Indeed, during the course of our lives, God appears and reappears. At times, we are that very light to the world in what we say and what we do. When we are called to serve and share a warm and friendly smile, we are restored; God’s face shines through our own countenance, and we are saved.
The expectation is that we are God’s hands, God’s light on this earth. God calls us to shine a light, to be witnesses to his mercy and love; not only through our words, but also in our works. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. When we serve those in need – like the student who needs tutoring, the lonely homebound person who needs company, those who have lost their homes and possessions because of a hurricane, earthquake, flooding or fire, or those who mourn – we, as in the words of the spiritual, “rise and shine.” We are witnesses to the Lord’s coming – symbolically on Christmas Day, and for real today and all the tomorrows of our lives.
Those who first sang the words of the spiritual, shackled by the chains of slavery, looked with hope to a new day – to a brighter day when the darkness of this inhumane treatment would give way to the light of freedom. Indeed, in response to their oppression, they sang these words with faith and hope. And in this age when we encounter personal and communal challenges that test our mettle, we would do well to join these forebearers in our common history by not cursing the darkness but always seeking the light. Yes, this is the meaning of Advent.
Jesus says in the gospel reading, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”
“Rise! Shine! For the light is a-comin’!
“My Lord says he’s comin’ by and by!”