I parked along Duke Street in front of the Lancaster County courthouse, and the cold leaked into the truck as soon as I opened the door. Five-month-old Leo stared up at me, dark eyes wide, two black holes into which entire galaxies have spilled. I unbuckled him from his seat, walked close to the truck so oncoming traffic wouldn’t usher both of us into eternity, and joined the rest of the family on the sidewalk where the kids exclaimed their delight at the decorating lamp posts. Christmas greens and red bows.
The “Don’t Walk” hand flashed so we trotted across Orange Street, the kids shouting out the countdown.
“Oh, no!” Sam shouted back to Maile and I as the hand solidified. “You guys didn’t make it! The street exploded!”
Crossing Duke was a less violent affair. We all made it safely to the other side, then walked up the stairs into the solemn, dimly-lit beauty that is St. James Episcopal Church on a winter’s night, eleven days before Christmas.
I thought about coming to church just that morning, less than twelve hours prior, and how I had walked down to Square One Coffee Shop and then came back in time to pick the children up from choir practice. It was the first I had noticed the iron plaque on the side of the church:
St. James Episcopal Church
* * * * *
Sometimes church feels more like an exercise in teaching children how to control their impulses than anything else. Stop picking your nose and please don’t nibble on your hair, that’s gross, and stand up straight and sit quietly and can you please stop laying down in the pew and wouldn’t this be a more enjoyable evening if you listened to the music instead of moaning about how hungry you are? The minutes pass slowly.
“I love our children, I really do,” I told Maile later that night. “But sometimes I think a quiet church service, alone, would do my soul good.”
But that was later. In the mean time, I tried to enjoy the “Festival of Advent Lessons and Carols” as best I could, surrounded by the whirling dervish of five children. And it was right there in the First Lesson, in the midst of children grabbing for the Book of Common Prayer and arguing over who owns the small green rubber monster just found in the depths of a pocket, when God reached down and spoke to me:
“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone…”
These words made me sigh, and suddenly all the shenanigans going on in our pew faded away. I stared at the stained glass.
How long, O Lord? I thought to myself. How long until the sad days will be gone?
* * * * *
This is the 270th Advent celebrated at St. James Episcopal. Through wars and rumors of wars, diseases and epidemics, harvests and blessings. Births and deaths. Over and over again, we remember, and we hope. But at some point you have to stop and wonder.
How long until these injustices are reckoned for?
How long until the people are comforted?
* * * * *
We stayed after church and spoke to some friends and relatives who were there, and someone who was cleaning up gave Lucy a long brass rod with a bell-shape hanging from the end of it, so she walked down the long aisle, gently lowering it onto each flame. Then smoke, and darkness.
This is hope: lighting candles in a church where candles have already been lit for 270 years, candles that we know will flicker and fade and eventually be snuffed out for another year.
And lighting them again.