This evening in very brief terms, I wanted to review with you how I personally view these four candles of the Advent season, and how I remind myself of what they mean and stand for every day of the year. In most Christian traditions each of these four candles represents some aspect of God or some symbol of the Divine; the exact interpretation changes a bit from tradition to tradition, but there is also considerable overlap. For our purposes this evening, I will identify four very popular interpretations of the symbolism of the four candles; they are Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. There is not necessarily a prescribed order for these and there are any number of variations on this theme, but for tonight, we will focus on the symbolism of these four as Hope, Love, Peace and Joy.
Before I begin to focus individually on each candle and the symbolism of that candle, I wanted to take just a minute to explain that this is how I see the world, and how I interpret the symbolism of what each candle might represent. My interpretation doesn’t necessarily have to be your interpretation, but what my hope is that through this process you might also discover a new way of recognizing God in your life on a daily basis through ordinary life.
For me, there is a strong connection to God that I discover and see every day in the natural world. I feel very connected to nature, and through that connection I feel like I also discover more about God as I understand God. One of the things which I very much enjoy is outdoor photography-if you have been around here for any length of time, you already know this. I often express this connection to God and my love of outdoor photography by describing what I do with a word that isn’t really a word, but rather a word that I invented.
Because we will be thinking about the words Hope, Love, Joy and Peace this evening, I thought it might be appropriate to introduce to you the idea of etymology. For lack of a real definition, let’s just say that etymology is the study of word origins and word meanings. You might recognize the “ology” part of that word that means the study of. This is also present in words like biology, is which the study of living things, which the prefix bio actually means. There are a lot words that end in this suffix of “ology”-and the study of God is no exception. The study of God is theology, the first part of the word “theo” means God, and the second part means to study.
We can also look at the word photography in this way as well. The first part of the word is “photo” which has a literal meaning of light. Often particles of light are referred to as photons and so forth, so you can begin to see that connection. The last part of the word photography is the “graphy” suffix, which has a literal meaning “to write”. So we can look at the word photography and interpret that to literally mean to write with light; which if you think about the process is exactly what happens. When you take a picture, you write upon a light sensitive surface the light which surrounds and is reflected from the area where the camera is pointed.
This seems like a lot of background information that is totally unrelated to an Advent wreath, but please be patient with me…we will get there, I promise.
If you can recall the very beginning of the service this evening, we began in what I described as symbolic darkness. As the candles were being lit, we were reminded through several readings the many ways that the person of Jesus or the presence of God is described in scripture as light. We heard that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. We also heard about the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. This metaphor is present throughout both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. It is literally everywhere; God is light in so many ways.
So this brings me back to the new word that I use to describe how I interpret my experience when I am in the natural word taking pictures. If the prefix “theo” has a literal meaning of God, and if you remember the suffix “graphy” from the word photography means to write, then when I am in the natural world taking pictures, I view that as a process where I am literally writing with the light of God. To write with the light of God could be expressed as “theography”. So it will be through theography that I wish to interpret the four symbolic representations of the Advent wreath.
As I light this first Advent candle, we will declare that this candle is symbolic of hope. One expression of this hope can be found in this theography experience of a sunrise I witnessed just a few weeks ago. I use the idea of a sunrise and link it to hope, because I believe that hope is more than just wishful thinking. Sometimes we use the word in that way, saying that I hope I get that new job or I hope the Seahawks win the Superbowl, but hope in the Divine surpasses wishful thinking. With Divine hope, we have a confidence that God is with us, regardless of what our current situation may be. The darkness prior to a sunrise can be interpreted in many ways and at many level of the human experience. But no matter how dark it is, we know with confidence the sun will rise again. And that is the Divine hope, the Divine confidence that I believe this first Advent candle symbolizes. Better yet, we can experience that hope each and every day when we pause and ponder a sunrise and allow it to remind us of the Divine hope available to us.
The second candle is often identified to be symbolic of love. For me, the interpretation of God’s love for us is present in the natural world when we observe mothers with their young. This summer my wife and I were touring Yellowstone National Park. When I first saw these young elk, I couldn’t see the mother anywhere. I was on one side of the river and they were on the other side. Sort of without thinking, I grabbed my camera and telephoto lens and scrambled down to the river’s edge to photograph these young elk. After a few minutes it dawned on me that if the mother was on my side of the river and if the mother interpreted my presence there as a threat to her young, I might be in serious danger. Thankfully, about the time that thought entered my head, the mother came into view and joined her two young ones for a drink in the river.
The reason I thought I might be in danger is because generally a mother in the wild will do almost anything to protect their young. The love that is demonstrated by these acts is really an expression of unconditional love; the same kind of love that I believe is expressed for us by God. Unconditional love is not dependent on behavior, a specific belief system, a set of rules or a specific interpretation of those rules. It is simply unconditional. Many people struggle with that concept, they want there to be some kind of a requirement for us to earn God’s love. I don’t think so. When I think about the unconditional love of a wild mother for her young, it reminds me of the unconditional love of God.
The third candle is often symbolic of Peace. For me, peace can be defined as the absence of anxiety-in other words, when we experience peace, the kind of peace that Jesus spoke of when he proclaimed that he gives us the peace which surpasses our ability to even understand it, that kind of peace means we are not anxious about our current situation or how that might change in the future. Peace is the absence of anxiety.
One expression of this in a theography experience happened to me while I was photographing tide pools on the Oregon coast. In those tide pools you will often find starfish. It’s hard to imagine a starfish having anxiety; and I don’t think they do. And yet they have every reason to be anxious. There are many starfish which when the tides don’t cooperate just right, find themselves in very dire circumstances. In spite of that, the starfish seems to be at peace, whenever you see one and wherever they happen to be. A starfish goes with flow in a sense and there are lessons for us to learn from the starfish about how we can experience the peace which surpasses all understanding.
The fourth candle is symbolic of joy. I saved joy for last because I understand joy to be the natural result of the other three. In other words, if you feel the unconditional love of God, and you experience the Divine hope of God and you are not anxious about your future and can experience the peace of God, the natural result of all those things will be joy.
A couple of years ago we attended the Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon. The theography experience of tulips represents joy for me. Part of that experience is the understanding that tulips have been waiting during the long cold and dark winter to express themselves in the spring. When they do come up and bloom, they represent the hope of spring, the love which causes them to grow and prosper, the peace of blooming where they are planted. So joy can be found as the natural result of experiencing the first three symbols and at least for me, is perfectly expressed in tulips.
There is also a center candle on an Advent Wreath that simply represents the person of Jesus and that light which came into the world. As we light this Christ Candle, may we once again be reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. Amen.