Sunday is the first day of Advent, and Kerry Trotter wants to do more than just go through the saccharine motions of observing tradition with her family. So she looked to the wreath, and was pleasantly surprised at the rich symbolism it bears.
While grocery shopping recently, I impulse purchased an Advent calendar for my 2-year-old daughter. It’s the kind with waxy chocolate nuggets hidden behind numbered cardboard doors — doors that will soon be mangled and torn asunder by my sweet girl’s eager, chubby fingers. Since this is the first Christmas that she really knows what’s going on, I’m pulling out all the stops. And if a $3.99 sugar-filled accessory is “all the stops,” consider them pulled.
I stood in the aisle of the store admiring my soon-to-be purchase, imagining her excitement over the daily ritual. I traced my finger over each number counting down from 25 until Christmas. I admired the trimmings adorning the tree in this Victorian-era illustrated tableau. I gazed upon the cherub-faced children seated at the foot of Santa Claus. I couldn’t wait to see my daughter’s face when I brought it home.
Then my little Word on Fire internal employee alarm went off. Wait, a second — Santa Claus? Advent Calendar?
I’m no theologian, but something didn’t add up. And Father Steve would have my head if I left well enough alone.
Admittedly, prior to my tenure here at Word on Fire, Advent for rubes like me started on December 1, ended December 25, and had three-plus weeks of chocolate surprises in between. Apparently, the makers of this calendar see it similarly.
No, fellow theological neophytes, I’m here to tell you that Advent begins this Sunday, December 2 and comprises the four Sundays up to Christmas — the last Sunday of which is December 23. All told, Advent lasts 23 days this year, not 25. Advent’s length is determined by the modern, Gregorian calendar, so the it fluctuates year to year from between 23 and 28 days.
But most of you already knew that, of course.
Being a big fan of chocolate, I bought the thing anyway, but I did leave the store bent on distinguishing for my daughter this Advent calendar (a saccharine countdown) from the Advent calendar, the beginning of the liturgical year and a time of preparation for the birth of the Christ child, traditionally manifested in the four-candled greenery of the Advent wreath.
(She’s only 2. This might take a few years.)
Nevertheless, I started thinking about my Catholic elementary school years, and the great anticipation with which we took turns lighting the candles on the Advent wreath in our classroom — less for any spiritual implications than the privilege of striking matches on school grounds. Anyway, we’d light each candle as the Sundays ticked by, sing a couple of Christmas carols en masse, and then return to our lessons, spitball-throwing and chatter about presents. I’m sure our teachers told us why we were doing this, and why one of those candles was pink, but heck if I remembered.
So I looked it up and here goes. Not surprisingly, each candle represents a Sunday in Advent, and the three violet candles are to be lit on the first, second and fourth Sundays. The one pink, or rose, candle is reserved for the third Sunday — Gaudete Sunday — a day of rejoicing for the imminent arrival of Christ (“gaudete” means “rejoice” in Latin). The candle colors match those worn by the priests on those Sundays.
But why candles? Why not Advent apples? Or Advent cheese cubes? We can go through the motions of acknowledging the passing of the weeks in so many ways, why have we chosen fire?
Catholics love a candle. It’s as rich a piece of symbolism we have for life, and more specifically, for God’s love. It burns bright, and while it might be extinguished in one candle’s physical form, fire as an element, as a property, never actually ceases to exist. Now that’s a metaphor. But fire, for all its destructive properties, is also our sustenance. Heat, light, nourishment, illumination — we require it for survival. Christ is our candle, of course, the source of our collective ability to see, to thrive and to interrelate. One candle lights another, and this is how we pass along this life source — we give in order to keep the whole operation afloat. Candles don’t last forever, but that flame, ostensibly, does.
As a parent of a child for whom an unspeakable amount of love is ascribed, I sort of half-joke that when my husband and I are blessed with another, I won’t be capable of loving that second child in the same way. How is it even possible? My own mom (mother of four) told me once about a quote she read on the topic — that a parent’s love is like candles alit. That first candle’s fire is strong, and when it is used to light another, the flame of the first flickers momentarily while the second’s burns bright . Then after not a moment goes by, those two flames are burning at equal measure. Not each at half-power, but both at full blast.
God doesn’t play favorites. He enabled us all to burn with equal intensity while somehow giving us all our fair shot. What we do with this opportunity is entirely up to us. Sometimes we pass the flame and brighten the light, and sometimes we blow it out.
Being human, we err on the side of, well, erring. Too often our one little chance with this light is hoarded for our personal gain — our tiny flame casting just enough luminosity to take us so far before it goes out in an unspectacular sizzle and wisp of smoke. But the enlightened (ha) among us know that we can see better and travel farther with a lot of light, and the only way to do that is to pass it on.
So here we are, at the end of the liturgical calendar, in the proverbial darkness. The first candle is lit and casts its glow— dim, but promising. As the weeks pass, each is used to spark the next and soon we’re basking in the tremendous love of a newborn baby put on this earth to light the way.
It made me reconsider our Advent traditions.
So, on Sunday, we’ll be lighting the first of four candles at our house. Maybe we’ll sing a little song, too. My daughter might not get it quite yet, but she’ll still feel the warmth.
And chocolate always tastes better by candlelight anyway.
Kerry Trotter is the content manager at Word on Fire.
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