It started before Halloween.

Unexpectedly, plastic wreaths appeared on doors and in windows. Then lights went up. Bushes and shrubs started twinkling.

The Washington Post reported on this phenomenon last week:

“At the Virginia Christmas Lighting and Decor Company, which hangs holiday lights at people’s homes, co-owner Michael Sfreddo said he received his first order in August and started installing lights in September. Normally, he doesn’t start hanging lights until the end of October. Jess Sears, a manager for Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in D.C., said their business has already doubled from last year and they’ve hired numerous temporary employees. One company has received four times the number of inquiries it had last year.”

It has been that kind of year.

This Sunday, we begin Advent, the time of waiting and watching. Usually around now is when the first decorations go up. But for so many of us, it seems like this entire year has been Advent. It has been 9 months of waiting — waiting to get a COVID test, waiting to get out of lockdown, waiting to get in to church, waiting to go to a restaurant, even if it just means sitting outside in the street, waiting outside a store so you can go inside and try to buy the last roll of toilet paper.

We want the waiting to be over. Put up the lights!

A lot of us feel like Christmas can’t come soon enough. During the darkest time of the year, during one of the darkest years we can remember, we want light and joy and cheer.

But I’d like to suggest another way of thinking about all those early decorations, all those new lights strung around the city.

A few years ago, the writer Annalise Jolley made an observation that has stayed with me.

She wrote: “It is hard to notice God at work in the dark.”

Put simply: We need light. Especially now.

Christ’s first words in the Gospel this morning are our command for Advent: “Be watchful!” In Mark’s Gospel, it is a call to prepare for our Lord’s second coming at the end of time.

But here and now, it carries another meaning, too.

This Advent, be watchful for God’s work in a world that this year has been overwhelmed by shadows.

As God said at the beginning of time, we say again, with yearning and hope: Let there be light.

This year, how we need that!

Something within calls us to light candles. String bulbs. Decorate trees. We need to turn on so much electricity that we keep Con Ed in business another year.

And all the added illumination does more than just look pretty. It reminds us to see beyond the darkness, to stay awake and watch for God during these coming weeks.

Be ready and be watchful!

Notice God at work. Watch for miracles of generosity and gratitude. Watch for gifts of kindness and grace. Watch for acts of selflessness.

We need that — and, importantly, we need to become a part of that. Look for opportunities to donate, to give, to sacrifice, to share. Look for charities, food pantries, neighbors in need.

Advent is more than just watching, more than just being a spectator. It invites us to enter into the story of Christ’s coming and look for ways to help make him present.

Because God is at work.

In the world. And in each of us. His creation goes on.

A great reminder is here this Sunday.  Something beautiful is beginning.

At this Mass, we celebrate the Rite of Welcome and Acceptance. We open our doors and our hearts to five people who will come into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter.

What a great affirmation of faith and a reminder of how God works in the world.

I was struck by these words of the prayer spoken by Bishop Sanchez a few moments ago. He offered them to the five people joining us this morning. But they are words for every one of us.

“You have followed God’s light and the way of the Gospel now lies open before you. Set your feet firmly on the path, and acknowledge the living God, who truly speaks to everyone. Walk in the light of Christ and learn to trust in his wisdom.”

I can’t think of a more hopeful way to get ready for Christmas. Every one of us needs to “set our feet firmly on the path” of our journey through Advent.

This year, perhaps we need the light sooner. Maybe we are ready, more than ever, for what the carol of Christmas describes as “the thrill of hope…,” the rejoicing of a weary world.

We are all so weary right now. But this Sunday, like the first flame on the Advent wreath, hope flickers before us.

And beyond these walls are signs of what is to come.

The decorations over Austin Street, the candles burning in windows on Continental Avenue, the bulbs glowing all around New York City remind us of what is missing right now, and what we are really waiting for: the light of Christ.

May they help us to be watchful and open our eyes to God’s work around us and within us.

It’s been a long, dark year.

More than ever: Let there be light.

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