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I have a really pathetic Advent candle situation happening in my house this season. It’s because the taper candles I bought are too big on the bottom, so I crammed them in the candle holders and hoped they’d stay anyway. They didn’t. The little wreath gets moved on and off our kitchen table several times a day (a high-traffic zone for homework, eating, and collecting clutter), and so every poor candle has now hit the floor at least once. They’re all cracked in the center, and each angles in a different direction.
But I’m sticking with my little motley candles, because of Fleming Rutledge. She is one of my favorite theological follows on Twitter (@flemingrut), and she wrote something recently about Advent candles that helped me make peace with mine: “A leading blogger is promoting the idea of giving names to Advent wreath candles: love, peace, etc. This ‘tradition’ is about 20 years old with zero liturgical background. The ancient Advent words are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. I did not make that up.”
I had to laugh. But if you’ve been following the Lectionary texts assigned during Advent (or if you’ve been a human person in the Year of our Lord 2021), maybe this also feels spot-on to you. Here, for example, is a gem from Luke’s Gospel last week: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” The Psalm 80 option doesn’t brighten things up much either: “O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.”
Tears to drink in full measure. That feels about right. During this Advent season, I have friends who are sick and friends who are grieving. Friends who work in hospitals, exhausted by death after death. Friends who show up every day in understaffed and underfunded schools, trying to smile and teach and carry on, like squeezing water from a rock. I have friends who are holding on by a thread. With Omicron, tornadoes, kids with guns, migrants in Hungary, a human rights crisis in Afghanistan… the whole world seems to be doing the same.
Death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Advent is hard. Not only do we live in a culture that has turned it, like everything, into an opportunity to swipe our cards (Lego Advent calendar for the kids? Or wine Advent calendar for mom?), we also live in a world that tells us every problem can be solved. Everything broken can be replaced. Everything frightening can be controlled. Everything sad has a reason. Everything hard has a purpose.
But I don’t think this is the same story that Advent prepares us to tell. That is a story that refuses to skip over the suffering, or deny darkness — but enters it instead. A woman’s vulnerable body. A town tired of outsiders. A threatening, violent government. A broken, weeping world.
Rutledge, who literally wrote the book Advent, says this: “The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.”
And so we prepare to welcome the Christ child yet again. We live in the tension that hope requires; not denying our grief, our doubts, our fears. But opening ourselves to the possibility of a God who will make all things new.
With just one click I could have some pristine candles for my table, I’m not going to do it. Toppled, cracked, and precarious, they still shine in the darkness.
So, I pray, do we.