To light a candle is an act of hope.

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, Christians there used to light candles and place them in windows as a sign to themselves and to others that they believed that some day this injustice would end. A candle burning in a window was a sign of hope and a political statement. The government didn’t miss the message. It passed a law making it illegal to place a lit candle in a window, the offense being equal to owning a firearm, both considered equally dangerous. This eventually became a joke among the kids: “Our government is afraid of lit candles!”

They had reason to be! Lit candles, more than firearms, overthrew apartheid. Hope, not guns, is what ultimately transforms things. To light a candle as an act of hope is to say to yourself and to others that, despite anything that might be happening in the world, you are still nursing a vision of peace and unity based upon something beyond the present state of things and this hope is based upon deeper realities and powers than the world admits. To light a candle is to state publicly that you believe that what’s real and what isn’t is ultimately determined by powers and issues that go beyond what’s seen on the evening news. To light a candle is an act of political defiance. It’s also an act of hope.

What is hope?

First of all, it’s not wishful thinking. I can wish to win a lottery, but that wish, all by itself, contains no real power to make it happen. Second, hope is not just natural optimism, an upbeat temperament that always sees the bright side of things. An unwavering optimism about things can sometimes even be helpful, but it’s no basis for hope, like wishful thinking it lacks the power to make its own dream come true. Finally, hope is not simply shrewd observation and common sense, the talent for sorting out the real from the fluff. Useful as this is, it’s still not hope. Why not?

Because hope doesn’t base itself upon a shrewd assessment of the empirical facts, but upon belief in a deeper set of realities: God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and the promise that flows from that.

There’s a story told about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that helps illustrate this. Teilhard wasn’t much given to wishful thinking or even to an optimistic temperament, but tended rather towards a lonely realism. Yet he was a man of real hope. For example, on one occasion, after giving a conference within which he laid out an historical vision of unity and peace for the world that paralleled the vision of scripture, he was challenged by some colleagues to this effect: “That’s a wonderful, idealistic vision of things, but suppose we blow-up the world with a nuclear bomb, what happens to your vision then?” “That would set things back some millions of years,” he replied, “but this will still come to fruition, not because I say so or because the facts right now indicate that it will, but because God promised it and in the resurrection of Jesus has shown that He is powerful enough to deliver on that promise.”

Hope, as we can see from this, requires both faith and patience. It works like yeast, not like a microwave oven. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, expresses this colourfully: “All politicians are alike,” he says, “they hold a finger up and check which way the wind is blowing and then make their decisions in that direction. That will never change, even if we change politicians. So we must change the wind! That’s hope’s task – to change the wind!”

When we look at what has morally changed this world – from the great religious traditions coming out of deserts, caves, and catacombs and helping morally leaven whole cultures to apartheid being overthrown in South Africa – we see that it has happened precisely when individuals and groups lit candles and hoped long enough until the wind did change.

We light advent candles with just that in mind, accepting that changing the wind is a long process, that the evening news will not always be positive, the stock markets will not always rise, the most sophisticated defenses in the world will not always protect us from terrorism, and secular liberal and conservative ideologies will not rid this planet of selfishness.

But we continue to light candles and hope anyway, not on the basis of a worsening or improving evening newscast, but because the deepest reality of all is that God exists, that the centre holds, that there’s ultimately a gracious Lord who rules this universe, and this Lord is powerful enough to rearrange the atoms of the planet and raise dead bodies to new life. We light candles of hope because God, who is more real than anything else, has promised to establish a kingdom of love and peace on this earth and is gracious, forgiving, and powerful enough to do it.