One of my favorite traditions at St. Edward’s University is the Festival of Lights, an evening celebration of prayer, song and fellowship on our hilltop in observance of Advent. For 38 years, members of the university community gather in candlelight and in hope to listen to words of scripture, to welcome neighbors from Austin who make the trek up the hill, and to sing carols anticipating the coming joy of Christmas. An evening concert of holiday music follows the service.
There are still exams and final projects to complete before students return home for Christmas break, but for this night we light up our iconic Main Building like a Christmas tree — literally a beacon on a hill — thankful for all that has brought us to this point and hopeful for what awaits us.
For a season that is so associated with hearth and home, Christmas is really marked by travel. It is a frenetic season of movement: long lines at airports, headlights filling stretches of highway, last minute runs to stores and malls. This is fitting. The tradition of Las Posadas reminds us of the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, led by a candle and seeking hospitality. There is the journey of the Magi, guided by a star. Even this time of year itself marks a point in the travels of our Earth around the Sun — the winter solstice.
Our hope is that all this traveling will not be in vain but will eventually bring us to Kingdom of Light. As Isaiah promises “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Until we reach that Peaceable Kingdom, we light our candles and share them with others to illuminate our path forward.
The speaker at the Festival of Lights this year was a student who has worked to provide support and advocacy for DACA students on our campus. The program he works with is called “Monarchs,” evoking those border-crossing butterflies who fly north and who bring such beauty to our gardens.
The experience of migrants and refugees has been much in the forefront of our minds this year. As a common text, our freshmen students read a book over the summer that explored the stories of undocumented immigrants, especially those detained and deported. Throughout the semester, they wrote essays, attended lectures and films, and engaged each other in dialogue about this complex issue in our country.
As a Catholic university founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross, St. Edward’s strives in its mission to help students “confront the critical issues of society and to seek justice and peace.” In the often contentious debates of our day, we want students to think critically — to shed some light. Often this means encouraging them to move out of their comfort zones and to explore all sides of complicated situations. Of course, that means we who work with them are willing to do so as well. This is as much a spiritual as an intellectual journey. Our hearts are formed in compassion when we are willing to drop our defenses and share the experience of another. In that, we relive the quest of the Magi.
I once read that the Magi were not journeying because they saw the star; they saw the star because they were already on the journey. In other words, if we wait for that clear signal from heaven before we move outside of our confines, we will never budge. But if we venture out in hope, especially when walking side by side with one another, we will see a great light. And we will rejoice.