“The long dawn of Advent begins, for now is the season of an ever-growing and an ever-kindly light-the one that lets us see reality more clearly.” (Kate Bowler, intro to Advent devotional) These words immediately make me think of the advent wreath. A visible symbol of the light growing brighter and brighter until finally Christ arrives.
The advent wreath has always been one of my most loved symbols of advent because it combines two of my very favorite things: arts & crafts, and fire. I mean really, what could be better? Traditionally, the advent wreath is a circle, adorned with garland, holding four candles (three purple and one rose colored). In the center is a larger white candle. As I grew older I learned that the advent wreath contains one of my other favorite things, symbolism. First, the easy symbolism (like I tell my students, never be afraid to start with the obvious answer). The wreath is a circle and, as such, has no beginning and no end. Hmmm…remind you of anything else?
But, what I really want to focus on is the candles themselves. The first candle is purple and it represents hope. How wonderful that hope comes first. After all, that is what differentiates this expectant waiting from despair. The ancient Jews who longed for the Messiah were living lives made hard by Roman occupation. There was true suffering in the waiting, but they were able to have hope because they knew a savior was coming. Knowing the ending allowed them to have hope. It was the same for me my first advent as a widow. As I watched the flickering light of that one small candle, I knew that I would not always be this sad, this defeated, this broken, for I too knew the ending. In just four short weeks we would be celebrating the arrival of a savior who was born in a borrowed room and spent the first few years of his life as a refugee. This savior faced his own suffering and therefore was able to truly see me in mine. Through his life, death, and resurrection, this savoir proved that while everything doesn’t happen for a reason, everything can be redeemed. And so I had hope. Not a lot, just one small light starting to break through the darkness, but it was enough.
On the latest episode of Cafeteria Christian, Pastor Natalia Terfa described it this way, “Hope is an anchor set in the future.” The hosts discussed how the candles are anticipatory, things may be stormy now but we have an anchor set in the future pulling us forward. We are leaning into something and believing that something will change. Host Emmy Kegler quoted the phrase, ‘Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.’
The second candle is also purple (or I guess blue if your church uses the wrong advent color…) and represents love. I can’t bring up love in an advent post and not mention the overwhelming love of a God who loves the world so much that They sent Their only begotten son. But when this candle is lit, it always makes me think of love that is a bit more tangible. In most of the churches I have attended the advent candles are lit by different members of the congregation, usually families. And by families I mean any combination of people who care deeply about each other. Parents and children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, the dearest of friends, etc. Together they walk the aisle carrying the flame that will light the candle (as a child, I loved this-I felt such power. As an adult, it’s a little more stressful. I think “please don’t go out, please don’t go out as I walk down the aisle). Together they then read the passage that accompanies the candle-lighting. It’s a visible demonstration of love and of faith lived out together.
The third candle is pink or rose colored and it represents joy. Joy is tricky for a griever; but, it is also tricky for the single mom worrying about how she will afford presents, for those in the aftermath of a divorce they never saw coming, for those who thought by now they would have a partner or kids. I would wager every adult has had a least one advent where they saw the joy candle and thought, “not this year.” Thankfully, our trusty friend dictionary.com gives us another definition for joy, “something or someone greatly valued or appreciated.” Being a part of a church community means you see a lot of people walk through all kinds of different stories. Watching others who found joy hard to access continue to show up, continue to invest in each other, and continue to walk in the light of the Lord was it’s own type of joy. It’s not quite the jubilation of a young child receiving their Christmas book at piano lessons (another one of my very favorite parts of the season), but I think it still counts.
The fourth candle, and the last one on the outside of the wreath is another purple candle and it represents peace. One of my favorite nativity sets (and that’s saying something as I currently have 11 displayed) features Mary holding baby Jesus instead of leaving Jesus in the manger. I know, I know swaddling clothes and all that- but if an angel had told me that I was going to deliver the savior of the world you had better believe I would be holding that baby. While I do think we have overly “prettified” the night of Jesus’ birth, I love this nativity set because it reminds me that in addition to the labor pains and the messiness of birth, the angels and the shepherds, there were also moments where Mary held her newborn baby. If you have been lucky enough to hold a contented newborn then you will recognize this very specific feeling of peace. This innocent, trusting, miracle is lying on your chest and you can feel their tiny bellies rising and falling with each breath. You hear their sweet little baby noises and as you inhale you catch a whiff of that delicious newborn smell. You close your eyes and just for a moment you forget about all the demands of your day and the worries of the future. There is just you and this baby; held, loved and safe. That is the peace I picture at advent. The time where we wait for our savior who is the only one who can make us all feel held, loved, and safe.
2 thoughts on “The Advent Wreath”
One of the great Cathedrals of Orthodox Christianity is that of St Constantine and Sophia in Bucharest Romania. From the 9th century it is build on the grounds to commemorate the victory of then King Vladimir over the Islamic Turks. During the 50 or so years of the Marxist Communists it was used as a military barracks to horse stalls. Reconsecrated after their fall in the early 90s, it has retained its medieval character, light by torches and the ancient rituals of the Liturgical seasons.
While there on a NATO/6th Fleet support visit one Advent season I witnessed such. First thing, in a stone church almost 1100 years old there are no seats, you stand for the 2 hour typical service. No internal heat in winter save the lite torches on the walls. The smell of incense burning is intense but transforming, the great hall. Its like walking into 900AD. The climax of the Advent service, which happens every day, not just on Sundays. Is when after the fires are lit. Those assembled after the great confession, write down on slips of paper what they want to confess, let go of, leave behind, change, a hope, many times prayers to the Saints. You go forward and place the slips in the great fires at the altar. Sign of the Cross and receive a blessing from the Priest. What you wrote is consumed by the fire. It is gone, no longer exists but ash.
We American Protestants like our liturgical times of the year, Advent, Lent, whatever to be nice, homogenized, cleaned up, made nice for the kids, go forward to light the little symbolic candles with mom and dad. Very nice. Nothing can be further from the truth. Jesus was born to a teenage mother in an animal stall, very smelly, very non-clean, very gritty, even by the standards of the day. He died on a Cross among the vomit, sweat, and human waste of other people. Again, not PG by any measure.
Yes, we will continue to light our candles and say our prayers. But are we changed, transformed by the experience? Jesus came for many things indeed. But he came I think not to light a few household candles. When need-be Jesus came to set the house on fire. Our preconceived notions of your 21st century American progressive Christianity that of course says and affirms all the right things we think need affirming. Does not rock the boat all that much or challenge our tribal ideologies. And all those parts of the Bible we do not like or have troubles with. That really challenge us. Its all true. Fire, be it from a candle or a bond fire does many things. Sometimes Jesus wants us to light a candle in the darkness, proclaim and witness to the light. Sometimes if we are honest with ourselves or him, he wants us to burn it down to the ground. So at the end of the day we are lighting candles with fire for what purpose?
Thank you for your post. My candles are all the ‘right’ color! I delight in my Advent wreath, but I attend a Baptist church, which has nothing of the sort. 😁 Your post reminds me of my rich and varied family faith heritage.
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