When I was a kid, growing up in Connecticut, we would celebrate Advent. We weren’t much of a Christian family, but we kept Christian customs. So each of the four Sundays before Christmas, before we began our Sunday dinner, my mom would make sure that we lit the Advent candles.
The first Sunday we celebrated hope, the second Sunday we celebrated peace, the third Sunday we celebrated love, and the fourth Sunday we celebrated joy. After we lit the candles, we sang our family grace, and ate. The problem was that this meal was in the middle of the day, so it got in the way of the New York Giants football games. But the food was good and the sentiment was in fact powerful and stayed with us as we grew up.
My family doesn’t celebrate Advent anymore. But perhaps we should. Because we need hope, peace, love and joy. And we need to recognize our own responsibility for hope, peace, love and joy.
Some aspects of hope can walk quietly into our lives without assistance. Consider that this week of all weeks we need hope. Our days are short, cold and rainy. We wake up in the dark and go to work in the dark. We come home in the dark. On Friday we will arrive at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, eight hours and 25 minutes from sunup to sundown.
That means that every day after this Friday the sun will set later and the angle of the sun will become higher. It is not something we have to work for to achieve. It is the seasonal calendar of life. We celebrate that, and welcome it. Hope walks in, whether we will it or not.
But in matters more personal and human, we can make hope happen. We have the power to do so. And with last week’s shooting in Connecticut, where I grew up celebrating Advent, it falls on all of us to create hope. How do we do that?
We can’t ever get back the lives, the futures, the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the 20 innocent 6- and 7-year-olds, and their teachers, and principal, and school counselor, who were all murdered. So why bother?
But if we just accept their deaths, with a despondent shrug and a deep sadness, and then go on, we confirm that last week’s murders were a tragedy. That is, the murders were something that just happened, and we are all passive witnesses to that crime.
We may or may not feel able to influence the newly-energized discourse on mental illness, assault weapons and 30 bullet clips. But we can each choose to live with hope, peace, love and joy. And we can each embrace our roles as ambassadors for hope, peace, love and joy. So here are a few ideas that go beyond politics and economics: Every once in a while take yourself away from the virtual world. At the bus stop, in a meeting, talking to friends, take the ear buds out and put down that smart phone. Look around, make eye contact, smile, ask people how they are doing, say “hi.” Take some time to listen to your friends and family, whether the conversation is about losing a parent, or figuring out how to cover your kids’ health insurance. Be a part of the society that surrounds us … a citizen, that is, in the best definition of that word.
After 9/11, we learned that we can give people a little happiness and hope, just by paying some attention to them. As Americans, we experienced an interval of politeness, kindness, and looking out for others. We didn’t rush red lights. We didn’t cut in line. We showed a certain caring and affection for others, and in that way we created hope.
We need that collective hope again … and peace and love and joy. We are in the darkest days of the year. We wait for nature to take its turn away from darkness. And we can light our own little candles of hope and love. Seems like the right thing to do, in the midst of the present-buying frenzy that defines this time of year. Advent can bring us hope, peace, love, and joy, just as my mom made sure we celebrated 50 years ago.
John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached via email at email@example.com