Have you ever been camping out in the woods without benefit of electricity, running water, and other modern conveniences? If you have, then you know that the ability to light a fire and keep it burning is important, particularly if you get caught in a storm. Getting wet wood to catch and burn is tricky business. Success makes all the difference – dry socks and hot food.
I remember one hiking trip with friends in the Green Mountains because it rained four of the six days we were out. The first two days were perfect early summer days to be out in the woods. The last four were anything but. It started raining sometime during the second night we camped. No big deal; we all had rain gear. We did decide to camp in the same place for the next night and just explore the trails around where we were. So we packed up our gear and tied up things we were leaving for the day and went off through the wet woods. We came back to camp in the late afternoon only to find a bear using the food pack we’d tied up as a piñata. We backed off and waited for the bear to go on its way. No campfire that night.
The next day we packed up and continued on our way. The rain also continued relentlessly all day, very heavy at times. But we were young and had spent quite a while planning this trip so we were going on and counting on the rain to end. The next couple of days were increasingly uncomfortable. Everything was either damp or soaked through. Any fire we’d managed was weak and smoky. By our last night, we were cold, wet, and desperate for hot food. That’s when we discovered that we had one match left between the five us. We had used them all in previous days just trying to get a fire going enough to boil water for coffee. Now there was one match and all eyes turned to me. I was the one with the most camping experience so I could start the fire with the one remaining match.
We created a lean-to out of branches and tarps to provide a little shelter and cleared a spot for the fire. Then I searched out dry tinder and kindling. I carefully arranged the little would-be fire and took out the last match. My friends were gathered around in hopeful anticipation. One of them hummed “Rise Up, O Flame” so quietly the sound of the rain almost covered it. I took a breath and struck the match and lit the tinder. Then just as carefully I added more tinder, then kindling, and then small branches, and finally it was hot enough to put on a log. We had fire. In a few hours we had coffee, hot food, and dry socks. We were all back to telling stories, singing, laughing, and looking forward to our last day of hiking even if the rains continued.
This Advent is feeling a bit like that rain-soaked hike. The general attitude of folks isn’t all that different than it was among my hiking companions on that trip. It’s been raining for days and people are tired of damp sleeping bags, cold meals, and wet socks. They want a little relief from the pouring rain. And we’ve got one match left and a whole pile of wet wood. Fire might be possible but doesn’t seem very probable given previous attempts to get it going. However, if I don’t get it burning there are going to be cold, hungry, wet folks who aren’t very happy with me.
Over the last several days that same old camp song has been filling my head like a prayer: “Rise up, oh flame. By thy lights glowing. Show to us beauty, visions and joy.” Now that I think of it, this would be a perfect Advent candle lighting song. Is this not what we are watching and waiting and preparing for in this Advent season – a strong flame of beauty, visions, and joy?
I am being guided (or pulled?) through this season by the need to coax a reluctant flame into fire. At first, that little bit of tinder that catches is fragile and a well-aimed raindrop could put it out. With careful tending, though, it can grow until, little by little, the fire gains enough strength and heat to set even the dampest logs aflame.
When Mary sang her song, flames were rising in her and filling her with beauty, visions, and joy for sure. Her words were a continuation of those spoken by Isaiah generations before. There’s a Holy Way out there where the hungry are fed and the broken are made whole. Finding this Holy Way is possible for the oppressed as well as the oppressors. It is possible to walk the Holy Way with weak hands and feeble knees. It is possible even when earthquakes devastate in Indonesia, when planes crash in Pakistan, when geese die by the thousands in Montana, or when you’re camping in the rain.
This third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Joy, is to remind us that Joy is already present in our lives. Joy is that tiny flame that holds infinite heat and power when it is nurtured and tended properly. Joy keeps our feet moving on the Holy Way of hope peace, joy, and love when the world speaks only of grief, anger, despair, or hatred. We aren’t waiting for something that has not yet happened so much as we are calling ourselves to pay attention to what did happen, what is happening, and what will happen again and again.
We are a people in need of dry socks and warm food. We live in a world that needs us, the Body of Christ, to be the Holy Way where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and the oppressed are liberated. The only way we can possibly do or be any of this is to take time to carefully tend the fragile flame of joy. When we take the time and care to tend and feed it, Joy will become a fire that strengthens and warms us enough for us to continue telling our stories, singing our songs, and laughing over the simple pleasure of a warm fire while the rains pour down. Success makes all the difference…
Rise up, oh flame.
By thy lights glowing.
Show to us beauty,
Visions and joy.
RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Advent – Joy – December 11, 2016