The candles on the Advent wreath can be a measure of the season, a way to mark its stages reverently, so that nothing gets lost in the rush. The wreath itself speaks without a word: evergreen as God’s unchanging care, circular as love, the ring without end.
Time moves forward in measured ways, as we light each subsequent candle. Love grounds and endures: fragrant green boughs anchor us and promise life even as the landscape outdoors may look snowy or barren. The wreath custom began in central Europe, when wintry roads became impassible. Wagon wheels were precious constructions, brought inside for safekeeping and hung from the ceiling. So for us now, during these four weeks, frantic rushing halts. We wait.
One candle may seem alone, frail in the darkness of December, during the shortest days of the year. But it speaks powerfully of our acute need for God. The solitary flame which could so easily be extinguished by a gust of wind or a careless hand reminds us of our own vulnerability. As the Leonard Cohen song says, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In many areas we know nothing or blunder badly, though we may bluff or pretend arrogantly. This Sunday reminds us: it’s time to turn to God.
When we wait for anything important, we are powerless. The recovery of a loved one who’s ill, a change in the economic climate, an acceptance to a school, a promotion in the hands of a boss, a long-desired pregnancy: all are beyond our control. Recognizing we can’t fix everything may be a first step of Advent; acknowledging our own failures a realistic second step.
The prophets and John the Baptist remind us of our terrible culpability. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We have betrayed our dearest loves, tried to solve complex problems with stupid violence, placed our own interests above everyone else’s. And time is short. When will we heal and transform into the dream God had for us at our conceptions? The season’s tone is stark, definitely not sweet or soothing!
As Thomas Merton wrote in NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: “Those who do not want mercy, never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.” (21-22) It might make us more comfortable with our chronic, nagging problems if we see them as the entry point to dynamic growth.
To prepare a place in our hearts for a small Christ child, we must dispense with any arrogance, pride or falsity—sharp prods to tender skin. In the “Magnificat” Mary says God comes into her lowliness, not her great virtue. The Creator of galaxies and oceans nestles into the arms of a young girl, rests in a little straw. The adult Jesus came to those who needed a physician, not those who were smugly self-righteous. No matter how cruelly we’ve sinned, God enters our worst failures and calls us friends.