fellowshipBeautiful and stirring, evocative and uplifting, the carols and songs, accompanied by trumpets, drums and an organ, created the holiday mood we had hoped for. Familiar and timeless, hope-filled and full of promise, the nine lessons interspersed between musical selections touched deeply-held chords of longing for a world ruled by love, not hate, joy, not despair, peace, not violence and discord. The service, this past Sunday in a nearby college chapel, was just the sanctuary we needed and sought in the midst of this Advent season. A season marked all too much – as every season seems to be – by hatred, condemnation, protest, division and utter brokenness. 
The controversial deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in New York City, and the subsequent angry reactions to grand jury decisions related to their legal cases and the racial turmoil and divides those deaths and decisions still dominate the headlines. So do stories of torture, rape, killing fields, racial profiling, kidnappings, hostages and beheadings. We are hard-pressed amidst this darkness to see evidence of the Prince of Peace in our midst.

The stirring carols and anthems begin to ring hollow. The ancient scriptures sound like platitudes. We wonder, in this holy season of expectation, how long those who walk in darkness will see the “great light” that the prophet Isaiah promised 28 centuries ago? 
For too many people, today and throughout time, darkness and not light, oppression and not freedom, trespass and not justice have been the defining characteristics of their world and their lives. 
But then last week, we saw a promising sign, a glimpse of the peace and the light about which Isaiah prophesied. 

For the first time in history, major Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christian authorities, along with leaders of the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim religions, met to sign a shared commitment against modern slavery, calling it a crime against humanity, and committing to its elimination by the year 2020.

According to the Huffington Post (December 2): 

“The catalyst behind this meeting, which included Pope Francis, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, Mata Amritanandamayi (a Hindu spiritual leader), and the venerable Bhikkhuni Thich Nu Chan Khong (representing the Zen Master Zen Thich Nhat Hanh), is the Global Freedom Network, a global religion-based network created this year with the goal of destroying modern slavery in every form, from child labor, prostitution and organ trafficking to any act which violates the dignity or liberty of any single person.”

The religious leaders found immense common ground on several key tenants of every faith – empathy, love, respect and equality. 
“We consider any action which does not treat others as equals to be an abhorrent crime,” Pope Francis said. “God is a love that is manifested in every human being; everyone is equal and ought to be afforded the same liberty and dignity.” 

As Andrew Forrest, president of Walk Free Foundation, pointed out, the signing of the declaration also represents a moment of great cooperation between Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders. Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grant Imam of Al Azhar, recalled the words of the Prophet: “An Arab is not superior to a non-Arab, just as a non-Arab is not superior to an Arab.” 

According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index published by the Walk Free Foundation, nearly 36 million people are currently victims of modern slavery.
In this season of Advent, we as followers of Christ are reminded of the promised coming of a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, and everlasting Father, a Prince of Peace. And yet, we are bombarded hourly by images that deny us wonder, obscure the awesome power of God, pervert our Creator’s intentions, and violate every condition leading to blessed peace. 

Just a few days ago, we learned of a cherished friend’s detention and imprisonment in Uganda. the non-profit ministry he founded along with his wife – Solidarity Uganda – to teach and implement non–violent ways of obtaining justice, was suddenly not received well by government authorities. As we pray for him, his family and his partners in mission, our hearts break for them and for the oppression they face. We grieve the absence of compassion and grace that leads humanity to attempt to break the bonds of peace in our world. In this sacred season, or any season, when the light of God is attempted to be snuffed out we seek ever stronger the signs of God’s presence and deliverance from the violence and injustice. 

And then … 
Moments after we learned about our friend, we received a message from a complete stranger, in Jerusalem, the holy city, in relation to Michael’s son Matthew, who lives with severe intellectual disabilities and autism: 

“I was deeply moved by your beautiful story “The Returning Light” (last published this year in our book, “Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey”). I am an Orthodox Jew and live in Jerusalem, where much work has been done with mentally challenged children and adults. Judaism believes that these special individuals have far higher souls than typical people, to the point where a very great rabbi of a previous generation would stand for them when they entered the room. Their greater connection to God has been seen when they have been taught Facilitated Communication: they have come out with mind blowingly spiritual statements that have left the rest of us dumbstruck … 

I also found your message very timely, as it is essentially the message of Chanukah, which began a few days ago. At a very dark time in Jewish history, the lights that burned miraculously for eight days in the Temple, as well as those that we kindle today, remind us that the light of God, no matter how hidden it may appear to be, is always there. This is particularly relevant to those of us who live in the wonderful community of Har Nof, where, two weeks ago, four incredibly special men were shot or hacked to death … while praying in the synagogue around the corner from my home … We are still in shock and deep mourning. It is hard to see God’s light at times like this, yet we go on believing it is there.

I have no doubt that, in these difficult times, your son is more aware of God’s presence than any of us … ”

The author may be right, who knows. Maybe Matthew – and so many, many others like him – is more aware of God’s presence in this violent, dark, painful, oppressive world than we may ever know this side of eternity. 

We simply pray in this season, especially, that all of us, in some vital, life-giving way, will come to see and feel and know the good news foretold by Isaiah and the reality of promises come true that are shared in the gospels. 

We long for the message of the carols we sing this season to penetrate our hearts, every heart, to touch and inspire us in new and lasting ways. We long for signs, real signs, of the profound love of a generous God breaking forth into our human hearts, shining healing light into the darkest recesses of our souls. 

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divineTruly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

“O Holy Night” (“Cantique de Noël”) Adolphe Adam, 1847