“A New Look at Advent”
Text: Isaiah 43: 19
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
For a couple of decades now every time Advent rolls around I gravitate toward the obvious-that being the Advent wreath, the Advent candles and some historical perspective on where Advent came from, why it was started and what symbolism lies at the heart of the season. Almost always I come around at some point to identify the candles in the Advent wreath as symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. There isn’t anything wrong with this and there are many sermons that can spring from these four ideals. But this year I wanted to do something new. I wanted to make an attempt to be faithful to the tradition and yet offer a new way of thinking about Advent and perhaps a new perspective for each of us that is applicable to our own spirituality.
That being said, I want to introduce you to a new way of thinking about the Advent candles and a new way of applying that symbolism not only to the Christmas story, but to our own spirituality and our own way of being. As I said earlier, the Advent candles are often portrayed as being symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. I have not ever paid any attention to any specific order or which candle is which. On some Advent wreathes the candles are all purple, sometimes, as is the case with this Advent wreath, there is one rose colored candle. This is more symbolism and yet another layer of story and tradition which sometimes actually works against us rather than for us.
What I would like for us to think about is an idea that the Advent wreath could represent for us a practical guide by which we could structure our lives and increase our own level of spirituality or connection to the Divine. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the symbolism of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. These are great ideals. They are just a little non-specific, I’m not sure they are all that helpful, particularly when someone is struggling. You know the Christmas season is not always full of joy for everyone; often it is a bit of a struggle just to endure the season for some people. For those who struggle, or those who have doubts and questions, for those who are uncertain of where they fit in the big picture or for those who reject the basic Christmas premise, this symbolism is not really helpful. In many ways, it adds to the problems rather than leading someone to a new place or a new way of thinking and being. If someone is not joyful during the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to just tell them to be joyful. If someone is not experiencing love in the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to simply say that it is the season of love. I think we may need to think about this in new ways; we can do better. We can actually help people and lead them to a new understanding and a new experience of Christmas.
I think that is what Christmas should really be about. Leading people to a new way of being. If you are not 100% pleased with where you are, Christmas should provide a pathway to reinvention of who you want to become. Christmas should offer ways to increase our spirituality. Christmas should revive and strengthen our connection to God. Re-imagining the Advent wreath I think may offer us that guide we are looking for.
So over the next four Sundays we will be looking at a new set of symbols for the Advent wreath. We will also be looking at new ways that symbolism relates to the Christmas story, but also how that symbolism reminds us of how we might make changes in our own lives. The Advent wreath can become a symbol by which we can understand the Christmas story on a new level and actually apply that new understanding to our own Christmas experience.
These four candles can become symbols of our own choosing; there isn’t any law that states the four candles of an Advent wreath must be symbolic of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope. This is just what the tradition has passed on to us. The tradition has also given us the concept that the center candle is the Christ candle, and represents the person of Jesus, but also represents the idea that Jesus is at the center of everything else that we do. So that gives us a good place to begin, with the center candle, because in my new way of viewing an Advent wreath, that part stays the same. In other words, the center candle is still the Christ candle, it still represents the person of Jesus and it is still symbolically in the center of everything else we do.
But let’s move on. I would like for us to begin to think about the Advent wreath and the four Sundays of Advent as more of a progression rather than four facets of our Christian lives. You see the four topics of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope are huge concepts. We could take the next four years to unpack each one of those topics. They are not very specific and the broad generalities are hard to apply to our daily living. So I’m offering a new alternative.
As a linear progression of how we accomplish most of what happens in our lives, I think the four candles of the Advent wreath could be symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Not only do these symbols tell the story of Christianity, I think they also can lead us forward into a stronger personal spirituality.
We can look at these four steps in a broad sense by simply defining the four words in this way: “Annunciation” means you announce what you are going to do, what is going to happen or what you are going to pursue. Setting a goal and making it public is another way of understanding “annunciation”.
Secondly, we “prepare” to do what we said we would do. This is the second step in our process called “preparation”. If our stated goal was to build a larger vocabulary, our preparation would be to locate the resources necessary for us to do that. If our annunciation involved a personal spiritual goal, like learning to meditate for example, then our preparation might include classes we could attend our books we might read about meditation.
The third step in this process is “confirmation”. This is the time when you actually begin to do what you said you would. It is confirmation of your commitment and desire to build a larger vocabulary or to learn to meditate. This confirmation possibly comes in the form of waking up one day and realizing that you are actually doing what you said you were going to do. “I’m actually learning new words” or a self-realization that “I’m learning to meditate and have practiced this 3 times this week”. These are all confirmations that things are beginning to happen.
The last step in the process is “transformation”. Transformation comes when we begin to reap the benefits of our stated goal. When our life changes because of the positive influence of learning to meditate or learning to use a larger vocabulary, then we experience transformation.
With regard to the Christmas story, I think you can probably easily see the parallels. The angels make a number of annunciations. They announce to Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph what is going to happen. The angels announce to shepherds what is about to take place or perhaps what has just recently happened.
The next few years are preparation. We have one story about when Jesus was 12 years old preparing for his ministry. John the Baptist is often identified as one who prepared the way.
Once Jesus begins his ministry around the age of 30, we have approximately 3 more years of confirmation. The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke, record the story of this confirmation. In a sense, the gospels are a record of Jesus doing what the angels said he would do.
After the execution and resurrection of Jesus, we have had about 2,000 years of transformation. That is the process displayed in the Christmas story; annunciation, preparation, confirmation and transformation. It is also the process by which we can transform our own lives. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding our thoughts around this idea of a simple Advent wreath serving as a step-by-step guide to our personal transformation.
Go in peace. Amen.