“The very lamplighter, who ran on before, dotting the dusky street with specks of light, and who was dressed to spend the evening somewhere, laughed out loudly as the Spirit passed, though little kenned the lamplighter that he had any company but Christmas!” —A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I’m reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the first time this year, and I was touched by the above picture as I read about Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present moving throughout the city to watch people celebrate the holiday. In this scene, they’d just left Bob Cratchit’s home, seeing his family’s humble Christmas celebration, even toasting to Scrooge’s good health despite his constant maltreatment of this apprentice.
And as they leave and move to the next place, we see that the lamplighter is there, doing his nightly duty, lighting the streets up so that people can see as they journey along. It’s a powerful picture, and one we don’t often consider in our cities now controlled by electricity.
It’s a powerful metaphor, too. Who are the lamplighters of our time, the ones lighting the dark paths we are journeying? What do they have to teach us about keeping up hope?
I think of activists at the border who are fighting for the rights of immigrant families against a system that oppresses and abuses them.
I think of a new book called Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints, written by Daneen Akers, which spotlights saints and prophets from across the world and throughout time, from Rumi to Saint Francis to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg to Sikh speaker and activist Valerie Kaur.
I think of Megan Rapinoe, who was nominated as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year for her work in the sports world fighting for equity and justice.
I think of the man I heard about on the radio this morning who is paying for all the Christmas presents for a family whose house was recently broken into.
I think of Mary and Elizabeth from the New Testament story of Jesus’ birth. These two women gave birth to prophetic baby boys in the face of empire, to a society that would eventually reject them. They were lamplighters of their time, and continue to be for our time as well.
Whether we are lighting up an entire street or just keeping our one streetlight burning bright, there is work to be done. The prophets of our day are speaking truth to power, and our lamplighters are holding out hope that maybe things really can change.
In Dickens’ story, it took three ghosts to wake a man up from his greed and complacency.
What does it take to wake us up?
When we don’t have three spirits to visit us and remind us who we are called to be, who are the people that remind us?
Politically, religiously, and socially, America is asking who we are. With the 2020 election looming, our political parties are wondering what’s coming, trying their best to convince voters that either Trump or a Democratic candidate will be best for all of us.
We are reckoning with our history, with the truth of our origin story, a story created through the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the slavery of African peoples and so many other oppressive acts. We are, like Ebenezer, coming to terms with our own complacency, hate, and greed. Our lamplighters are asking us to pay attention, not just to a political party, but to the stories we tell around the dinner table, in our schools, at our churches, how we treat the poor, and who we care about.
To get through 2020, we have to pay attention to where we are going and who is going to help us get there. The lamplighter reminds us that even when things feel dark, there is always a light to show us the way.