“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)
“I will light Candles this Christmas,” wrote theologian Howard Thurman in a poem published after his death in 1981. “Candles of joy despite all sadness, candles of hope where despair keeps watch, candles of courage for fears ever present.”
Like old Zechariah living under Roman oppression, Thurman knew only too well the shadows of his time. As an African American boy growing up in Florida, he’d experienced first-hand the long night of segregation and the ever-present fear of racial violence. As an adult, he learned that racism and hatred weren’t confined to one state or region. Thurman came of age during World War I when African Americans fought and died for their country but then came home to a nation that still denied their full humanity. He was 19 when the flu pandemic broke out, exposing the country’s chasms between class and race.
Yet also like Zechariah, Thurman knew the power of light to dispel the shadows of fear and despair. Connecting prayer and faith with resistance and social justice, he called Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and others in the Civil Rights movement to light their candles of courage and hope.
Thurman’s poem continues to call us. May we light our Advent Candles to be, in his words, candles of “peace for tempest-tossed days, candles of grace to ease heavy burdens, candles of love to inspire all [our] living.”
Thank you, God, for the witness of Howard Thurman. Help us this Advent to light your candles to “burn all the year long.” Amen.