Happy New Year! It may feel a little premature to you, but for the church, this Sunday is the first Sunday in the Church Year. The church marks time a little differently than the calendar year or the academic year or the budget year.
In a sense, we all live by a bunch of different calendars. School children begin a new year on the Tuesday after Labour Day. Many companies operate by a budget year which is different than the calendar year. Other religions and cultures celebrate the New Year on a different day—such as Chinese New Year. For the church, the year begins with Advent. This season begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming” or “arrival”. It is a season of new beginnings, a season of preparation and anticipation, a season of hope. Advent has a double focus. It’s about both past and future. It looks backwards and forwards.
One of the prominent images in this season is the image of light. Many of you may be familiar with lighting the candles on an Advent wreath. Perhaps you do it at the church you attend, or the church you used to attend. Maybe some of you do this as a tradition at home.
I was introduced to this custom at church as a teenager, and I was fascinated by it. I was told that each of the five candles in the Advent wreath stood for something else. These were the candles of love … and hope … and peace … and joy, with the Christ Candle in the middle. In other churches, the candles stood for different participants in the Christmas story: the shepherds … the wise men … Joseph … and finally, Mary, with the Christ Candle in the middle again.
Each week, we would light another candle and pray for that day’s theme. The climax of it all came when we would light the big white candle in the middle, the Christ candle, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
I’ve since learned that that’s not the real point of the candles in the wreath. The central symbolism of Advent is the image of light. One of Christianity’s central images is that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.
In this, Christianity shares much in common with other faith traditions. Light and darkness are important images worldwide. The Hindu festival of Diwali, one of the most important celebrations in India, celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. Chinese people welcome the New Year with paper lanterns. Thailand celebrates the festival of Loi Krathong each November, in which a lotus–shaped vessel made of banana leaves is floated on the river, containing a candle, three joss sticks, some flowers and coins. Faithful Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to celebrate God’s deliverance. The menorah, with nine candles, derives from this celebration.
Darkness is a powerful image for us. Many of us are afraid of the dark. We also use darkness as an image, a metaphor, for a world that has gone wrong. The world is a mess. We say that we live in darkness.
So we use night lights to give us a sense of safety and security. In the darkest days of the year, when the nights are longest, we decorate our houses with lights, lots and lots of lights.
At Christmastide, Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. We mark the new year in the church in Advent by acknowledging the darkness in the world. We begin in darkness. No candles are burning. We confess the injustice and pain and violence which are so large a part of the life of the world as we know it today.
Then, in an act of daring and profound hope, we light a single candle. I’m reminded of a saying derived from an old Chinese proverb: “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. We light that first candle of Advent and the symbolism of light is born in the midst of the darkness.
On subsequent Sundays, we light the other candles. As each candle is lit, the light grows. It’s no longer just one little candle burning in the darkness. Now there are two … and three … and four …
… and then on Christmas Eve, we light the Christ candle. We lift our own candles and light them from the Christ Candle. We are lit by the Light of the World. We make a new commitment to live in the ways of Christ. We pledge ourselves to be more compassionate and just, more tolerant and peaceful. We vow to honour God’s gospel purposes in our own lives.
This is part of Advent’s aim. We commit ourselves anew to work with God for the healing of the world. God’s love is born in us. We pledge once again to walk in the way of light, trusting that God’s love for the world is reliable.
There have been, and continue to be, terrible times in the history of the world. Sometimes it seems as if everything is falling apart. But Advent faith remembers and trusts that the purposes of God will be accomplished.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook