I first published this on 24 November 2005. As I was preparing some thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, I thought about this piece. In looking at it, I saw a number of errors that I didn’t realize were in the post. So I have cleaned it up and am reposting it for this season.
This is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the birth and coming of Jesus Christ. To celebrate each week of Advent, we light a candle on the Advent wreath. But what do the candles mean? There are a number of reasons but here is something to consider.
Lighting the 1st Candle
Advent begins in the darkness of the year. It is darkness both in terms of sunlight and in terms of our own lives. We see violence, poverty and oppression all around us and we wonder if there ever will be sunlight again. We wonder if the world is meant to ever see sunshine or whether we will always be trapped in the darkness that we experience. But we are reminded that
The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1: 2 – 4)
And John reminds us that
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1: 1 -3)
We light the first candle of Advent, not so much to relieve the darkness but to bring light into the world. We light the first candle not so God can find us but so we can find our way to God. It may only be one light in the vast expanse of darkness but it cannot be hidden in the darkness. We are able to begin Advent because we have the light and in the light we find God.
Lighting the 2nd Candle
We light the second candle of Advent first out of fear but then out of joy. We are fearful because it is still dark and we are still uncomfortable being in the darkness. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, the beginnings of Advent bring fear.
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26 – 38)
Mary was fearful because she knew how society would react upon hearing that she was pregnant. Joseph, soon to be Mary’s husband, was also worried because society would not approve of Mary being pregnant before the completion of the marriage vows. But angels told both that everything was going to be alright and that there was nothing to fear. Joseph understood and stood by his wife to be. Mary exalted in her joy and said
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1: 46 – 55)
Mary and Joseph were not the only ones to first fear and then rejoice in the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The first to hear of Jesus’ birth that night in Bethlehem were the shepherds in fields outside the town.
The Shepherds and the Angels
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 1But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2: 8 – 20)
So just like before the angels told Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus and they proclaimed the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, so too do we experience fear in the darkness of the times. But our fear turns to joy because we know that Christ is being born in Bethlehem. Like the angels, we exclaim our joy in this event. So we light the second candle in joy.
Lighting the 3rd Candle
The third candle is the light of discovery. The shepherds left the manger and went to tell others. And while they were doing so, there were others who sought the new-born child.
The Visit of the Magi
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 2)
We light the third candle because we know others, like the wise men of the east still seek the Christ child. They have heard the Good News first told by the shepherds and they seek to find the child, just as the wise men did. But discovery is never easy, especially in the darkness of the world. So we light the third candle to bring light into the world, knowing that in the light truth will shine and in the truth, people will be set free.
Lighting the 4th Candle
We light the fourth candle in celebration. Now the light, once so feeble and perhaps overwhelmed by the darkness, glows brightly. We remember the words of John, who wrote
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (John 1: 5 – 9)
Like John the Baptist, we now go forth proclaiming the coming of Christ. In lighting the fourth candle, we now proclaim the birth of Jesus the Christ child is soon to be. We have completed our four week journey and preparation, so we can begin celebrating. With the light of the fourth candle, we can see much clearer than we could a few weeks ago. Like Mary and Joseph, we began this journey in darkness with fear, but our fear turned to joy because we know what the birth of Christ really means. Like the wise men who were guided by the star in the east so too have we been guided by the light of the candles. We come seeking to find the Christ child. So we light the fourth candle in celebration.
Lighting the Christ Candle
Over the past four weeks, we have lit the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Each week the light of the Advent Wreath has grown brighter. And now the circle is complete. The four candles of Advent remind us and direct us towards the center candle, the Christ Candle. Just as the Christ Candle is the center of the Advent Wreath, so too should we make Christ the center of our lives. In lighting the Christ Candle, we are bringing forth a light that is so bright that it cannot be extinguished. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, we bring light into a world of darkness; no longer is the world a place of fear and darkness because fear and darkness cannot survive in a world of light. As we celebrate Advent and Christmas this year, let us take the light of Christ, that light that abides in our hearts and allows us to light the four candles of Advent, out into the world. We take the Light of Christ out into the world to bring the Good News that the sick will be healed, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear and the oppressed will be set free.