Advent 4 2019
Do you remember the Blue Peter Advent Crown? Every year the long-running children’s programme used to show the nation’s children how to make an advent crown, a decoration for the season, fashioned out of coat hangers and tinsel. The candle holders were made out of bottle tops, and the tinsel wrapped around it. Simple. Simple but deadly! I don’t think fireproof tinsel was available in the 1970s when John Noakes and his successors did this. But at least it made Advent a national phenomenon, which of course it still is, but instead of lighting candles, the youth of today eat chocolate. And it echoes what we still do here - somewhat more safely and professionally in church. Every year we dig out the Advent Candles, Gill, and before her, Janet, beautifies the stand and we put our top-notch advent candles in. Perhaps you saw on the television last week, the Christmas – or is it Advent - programme of Inside the Factory, in which, among other things they visited Charles Farris, candlemakers. The people from whom we get our church candles. The business of making church candles is very painstaking, it involves many dippings of gradually coated wicks into hot wax, with many minutes between. Each dipping of the candle as it is made adds a fraction of an inch in thickness. Many cheaper candles are made with moulds, but church candles have a higher beeswax content and are made more slowly. Quick make – quick burn, it seems.
The candles, as you can see, are three purple, and one pink and one white. Different traditions account for these coloured candles in different ways, associating them with different themes for each Sunday. The Church of England recommends the scheme we follow – Advent Sundays are for the patriarchs, then the prophets, then John the Baptist and then Mary. This sequence helps us remember the role of Old Testament prophecy in our weekly run up to Christmas. Our ‘four candles’ tell a story, before we reach the fifth one, the white one which is for Jesus, and we light that after the sermon at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This is where we have arrived at in 21st century Enfield.
Modern Advent has a double focus for many: the build-up to Christmas (the first coming), and the expectation of the Parousia (the second coming). Combined with the celebration of the heralding ministry of John the Baptist, it is a profound season, which can so often be sublimated by increasingly premature celebrations of Christmas. Nevertheless, many churches hold onto Advent faithfully, valuing its preparatory and anticipatory dimensions, themes of light in darkness, judgment, Christ as King and foci on the patriarchs, prophets, John, and Mary provide a rich vein of musical, scriptural and poetic material and much scope for creative journeys through the season, either in one event or as a weekly build-up. The Advent wreath of candles is only part of that expectant atmosphere. If you were able to come to our glorious Advent Carol Service a few weeks ago you will know what I mean. Musicians love Advent because there is so much glorious music to sing by candlelight!
The Advent Star, from which both we and Blue Peter get the idea, originated in Herrnhut in East Germany, when the Verbeek family set up a factory to make three-pronged Advent stars for Moravian Christians, as a reminder of the Bethlehem star that guided the magi; of the stars in the heavens created by God the Creator, and of Christ the Morning Star. This has been blended with the Advent Wreath, and we now have a four pointed circular base with a white candle in the middle.
There is also the Jesse Tree, named after the father of David: usually it is an evergreen tree decorated during Advent with symbols or pictures of biblical characters associated with Christ’s nativity, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph and Mary among them. These various traditions, all originating in Northern Europe, have become a little confused (The familiar story of Prince Albert introducing the ‘Christmas’ Tree in 1851 clouds our insight too), but they variously illuminate the biblical and theological aspects appropriate to a season which itself has a dual focus on the immanent Christmas and the eschatological hope of the second coming. As we travel through Advent these two spiritual destinations become a bit blurred, intermingled like holly and ivy, and while this is in itself not a huge problem, it does do good to at least hold the two apart mentally and spiritually.
Another Moravian tradition adopted is that of the Christingle candle. We hand those out in vast numbers on Christmas Eve as you know. Do come and help us make them tomorrow! Devised by Bishop Johannes de Watteville in 1747 they have evolved into a candle stuffed into an orange, introduced by John Pensom who developed it as a fundraising idea for The Children's Society. Now thousands of children receive christingles each year at services that can to take place at any point between Advent Sunday and Candlemas. This relatively modern tradition gives us an orange, representing the world; a candle representing Christ as Light of the World; a red ribbon wrapped around the orange, representing the blood of Christ and dried fruits or sweets on cocktail sticks pushed into the orange, representing the fruits of the earth and the four seasons, or perhaps the wounds of Christ.
It is this white candle representing Jesus as Light of the World that unites and makes sense of all of our candle-lighting traditions, whatever colour they may be. For whether the candles we light are representative of biblical people, characters in the nativity story, or symbols of prayer for the sick and dying or deceased, ultimately and universally, all is light. When we light a candle we create, share and acknowledge a little bit of light. It is fragile light, a ‘little light of mine’ that shines in the darkness, to add to all the other light, and to invoke the overwhelming greater light of Christ. Our little light, whether lit in the candle tray, or the Advent candle in the wreath, or on the pillars around us, or even the Paschal Candle at Easter represents the light of Christ, which itself reminds us of two vital aspects of our faith.
For Christ the light of the world is the Christ, born at Bethlehem to bring light into the world, so save us, to be a light of hope shining in this dark world of sin. But the light of Christ is also the Easter light, the resurrection light, that although born into a dark world, concludes his walk on this blue, sad planet in a blaze of resurrection light. Every Advent Candle is an Easter candle too, and every Easter candle a reminder of the Advent hope, which will yet emerge as resurrection light.
The other aspect of any candle, especially in Advent, is that every candle, while symbolic of light, is also a metaphor for life and death. Shakespeare’s Macbeth reminds us of this in a fairly negative way: “Out, out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” To a Christian, perhaps lighting a candle for loved one, or in prayer, the candle is a memento mori, a reminder of mortality. Candles die, their wick burns down and the flame is extinguished. Every candle is an Advent candle because it reminds of those four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. There is no escaping this – being born, we will die, and this is a theme for reflection in Advent as we draw ever nearer to that time when our ultimate salvation inevitably comes (Romans 13:11-14). Yet they have been lit to symbolise, and indeed to be part of that greater light and so the dying candle points us not only to our death, but by its very light, to the resurrection light beyond. When our light goes out, we begin another journey to a greater light.
As the poet John Donne put it in a payer we often use at funerals, most recently on Thursday at Audrey’s funeral:
Bring us O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven; to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitation of thy glory and dominion, world without end.
‘No darkness, nor dazzling’ – that is, no candles, and no need for candles. ‘No hopes nor fears’ – that is, nothing to worry about, and therefore nothing to hope for either. There is no need for hope where perfect love has cast out fear. The place where that will happen, where is has happened, is the place of ‘equal eternity’ in the presence of God. It may be that ‘with every Christmas card I write, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’, but with every candle we light, we are realizing a hope of a fulfilled Advent and a time when every tear shall be wiped away, every fear consumed by the flame of loving light, and heaven and earth united in peaceful, resurrection joy. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/12/19