December 4, 2018
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Led by the Holy Spirit,
St. John's mission is to inspire people to grow into the heart and mind of Christ by engaging together in worshiping, serving, and spiritual formation.


A first candle of the Advent Wreath: Hope  


During the season of Advent, I offer reflections on hope, peace, joy, and love as the candles of the Advent Wreath are lit.

One custom I did not mention in last week’s “A Field Guide to Advent” is the Advent Wreath.  For the last two Sundays there’s been Advent Wreath making happening at St John’s: on November 25th people young and old made wreaths together in the parish hall after church, and this past Sunday Caroline Melby led the children in a Sunday School craft making wreaths. Her work reminded me that the candles on an Advent Wreath have been given particular meaning by some Christians, and these meanings offer the chance for reflection as the candles are lit.

We place an Advent Wreath in the church next to the altar and light its candles (one the first Sunday of Advent, two the second Sunday of Advent, and so on) for the 9:30am service but there is no explanation, no recognition of what is happening. This is one of several instances where I quibble with The Book of Common Prayer, whose ancillary volume—The Book of Occasional Services—dourly states: “When [the Advent Wreath] is used in the church, no special prayers or ceremonial elaboration…is desirable.” [1]

I’ve always found it odd that we who preach and lead worship are supposed to teach about Advent as a season of hopeful expectation but our prayer book discourages the use of a valuable visual, experiential aid (the lighting of the Advent Wreath) to underscore that teaching. On Sunday I managed to work around the rubrics by folding the Advent Wreath into the prayer I used at the very beginning of our worship: “As we light the first candle on the Advent Wreath, O Lord, give us the courage to light a single candle of hope in our hearts, that we might dare to expect great things from you coming into the world.”

Here’s a history of the Advent Wreath: “The Advent wreath was first used as a Christian devotion in the Middle Ages. It gets its design from the customs of pre-Christian Germanic and Scandinavian cultures, who used candles and greenery as symbols of light and life during the dark and cold winter. The Advent Wreath is a circular evergreen wreath with four or five candles, three purple, one rose, and (if you use the five-candle type), one white candle for Christmas Day placed in the very center of the wreath. Some Christians use blue candles instead of the traditional purple ones.

“The candles symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. The evergreen symbolizes renewal, and the circular shape the completeness of God. The candle colors are derived from the traditional liturgical colors of Advent (purple and rose) and Christmas (white). Each candle is first lit on the appropriate Sunday of Advent, and then the candles may be lit each day as a part of the individual or family's daily prayers.

“Certain candles have been given various names and designations:
Candle 1. Hope and/or Patriarchs (purple)
Candle 2. Peace and/or Prophets (purple)
Candle 3. Joy and/or John the Baptist (rose)
Candle 4. Love or The Virgin Mary (purple)
Candle 5. Christ The Light of the World (white)” [2]

It takes a certain measure of courage to hope, to expect the best from someone for they could let us down. I think it takes even greater courage to place our hope in God, because if God seems to let us down then we feel like we’re left with nothing. In 2017 parishioners at St John’s studied The Rev. John Gorsuch’s book “An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey.” For many years, Gorsuch was a spiritual director and in one chapter of his book he listed the most common reasons he’d heard from people unwilling to put their hope in God. At the top of the list is this one: “God, if there is a God, might let me down—I don’t care to put that to the test.” [3]

At some point in our spiritual journeys each one of us has to make the decision whether or not to put our hope in God. When things are going well in our lives that can feel easy but when life is crashing down around us it can feel impossible. When the latter inevitably happens, we light a single candle—just one—and we focus ourselves on the light generated by its tiny flame. The Divine Light that—in a few weeks—will be coming into the world will arrive in its own tiny package: a frail human infant. But as we will see, that’s all it takes to change the world.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul links hope and the Holy Spirit together in several places. In chapter 5:1-5 Paul says that because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we will not be disappointed by the hope we place in God:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” [NRSV translation]

The difference here is not that the Holy Spirit somehow enhances God’s performance or track record but rather that the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and as such how we receive God’s fulfilling of our desires. Later in Romans (15:12-13) Paul quotes a prophecy of Isaiah as he writes of the universality of the Coming One, stating that both Jews and Gentiles shall be ruled by and shall hope in the Messiah. Here again Paul links the ability to hope to the presence of the Holy Spirit:

“…and again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [NRSV translation]

So if we wish for more hope then perhaps we light the first candle of the Advent Wreath and pray for the Holy Spirit to build a nest in our hearts and bring that hope to life in us. It is as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops—at all.” [4]

 [1] The Book of Occasional Services, New York: Church Publishing, 2004, 30.


[3] An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey, John P. Gorsuch, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1990, 24.