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The sanctuary lights struggle to contend with the bleak December sky. But the dimness accommodates the translucence of candlelight. Stained glass windows, normally shouting their daylight stories, are tamer now in the light of winter, providing a storied backdrop for the Advent candle-wreath.

Each week a family comes forward to read the liturgy that relates the unfolding drama of Emmanuel to its ancient Hebrew story of promise. The first week is the Candle of Hope. Somber tones blend with snickers of laughter as a little girl accidentally blows out the candle too early. They fumble for the lighter to reignite it. Relieved and satisfied, they shuffle away to rejoin the shared contentment of the crowd.

Let’s call him Lincoln. Sober for mere days, he paces outside the all-night liquor store fingering the cash in his pocket. His usual techniques for avoidance are failing. The faces of his new AA friends drift through his mind.

He waffles between the constancy of his inner turmoil and the desperation to relieve it with alcohol. His sponsor moved away last week, and he has no replacement yet. His therapist parrots back to him in psycho-speak, a darkness he knows too well. Just ten minutes of peace is all he craves. Ten minutes outside his corkscrew brain. Ten minutes without the anxiety, chaos, and fear that plague his every waking thought.

Within the safety and sanity of sobriety, it can be almost impossible to imagine the desperation people like Lincoln face every hour. It can seem like a vast, fixed chasm between the beauty of an Advent candle and the relief of a first drink—the genuine madness of addiction. Moments of breathless beauty, watching one’s daughter or son light the next candle, one more hopeful pinprick of light can feel that this was how life was always meant to be; how God intended things. But such moments elude the addict.

As someone who knows both places, I can say with confidence that a hair’s breadth is all that separates the peaceful Advent worship and the insanity of addiction. The perceived chasm between normalcy and numbness is truly as thin as a single decision. To the addictive mind, no real safety can be found in a picture-perfect Sunday morning liturgy while gutter-puking one’s sodden sorrows with no memory of doing so.

If Advent means anything at all, it is the promise of hope offered to those most in need of God’s welcome interruption. It is the flame to a candle’s wick, hope surrendered in favor of inebriation’s quick fix. It is for the Lincolns. And for me. It is for anyone who gazes with equal parts longing and suspicion at the portrayal of normalcy and beauty of a child holding her papa’s hand, a nervous husband’s fumbling through pronunciations from the prophet Isaiah.

Advent means coming. Arrival. A coming-into. The embodiment of our worst addictions, our hoping against hope, all in a shivering child who will be drawn to the sickest, most desperate, most trapped among us. He it is who, against all evidence to the contrary, can guide Lincoln and me from gutter to chancel, from headlights to candlelight, from aimlessness to purpose, from our scarred past to a hopeful future, from inebriation to transformation.

Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic. I’m also a follower of him who loves alcoholics enough to lead us from false light into holy candlelight. For us, Advent isn’t just a quaint, picturesque scene. It is a true drink from the deepest well. It is the Source of light itself.

About the Author

  • Robert Alan Rife

    Robert Alan Rife is an ordained Covenant pastor serving with Serve Globally in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife Rae. For 13 years he was the director of worship arts and spiritual formation at Yakima (Washington) Covenant Church. He is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, liturgist, retreat leader, writer, and poet.

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