You may be surprised that there are so many traditions about the Advent Wreath and its candles. Although the modern Advent wreath was created in 19th-century Germany by Johann Wichern, a Lutheran Pastor, the wreath has evolved from the number of candles to be used to their color.
Candles may be purple, blue, red, white, rose, and even green and gold! And their meaning and application is also rich and diverse – hope, penance, peace, communion, faith and, yes, joy represented by a rose candle usually lit on the third Sunday in Advent… today!
The candle of “Joy” takes its name from St Paul’s earliest letter in the New Testament, where he instructs his readers, “to keep up being of good cheer, to continue praying not matter what, and to be thankful even if they would not feel like giving thanks,” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
At the heart of today’s psalm 126 and the Song of Mary, traditionally read on the third Sunday in Advent, there is the note of joy for the good news of salvation and deliverance close at hand, and the arrival of Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
Joy is not a word that we may immediately associate with St Paul. Perhaps righteousness, justification, faith and law are the words that we would rather associate with the apostle. St Paul’s story reflected in the book of Acts and his letters would portray him as an evangelist, a no-nonsense teacher, someone experienced in hardships and yet, always on the go, with no time for idle chat. And, even, perhaps, a little cranky?
Yet, both at the very beginning of his ministry (in today’s reading) and at the very end (Philippians 4:4) there is a constant – His call to be always of good cheer, even insisting, “I say it again: Rejoice!”
As betrothed and yet a mother-to-be, the young teenager Mary had scant reasons to be joyful. In fact, Luke tells us that she was “troubled,” even as one bible scholar would define, “intensely going back-and-forth between inner thoughts and emotions,” (G. Abbott-Smith, 1864-1947).
She was contemplating an unknown future. As a young woman in a tightly regimented society, she had to deal with the all the symptoms of the new Life forming inside her, Jesus. And yet, Mary finds the strength to rejoice and cheer even when all that she was going through would call for laments worthy of Jeremiah!
If there is something that we can affirm with absolute certainty about Mary is that she was filled with the Holy Spirit, (Luke 1:35). A Spirit that not only created new life in Mary’s womb, but created a new life in Mary’s spirit – a new life filled with joy and hope.
Mary, as a gateway of salvation for the world, did not accept her call with sorrowful disappointment but her response was as trustful and joyful as the child’s running to a loving parental embrace.
Let me suggest that Mary has a lot to teach us, and for us to learn from her experience. For the Spirit that descended upon Mary is none other than the Spirit poured on us as a mark of our redemption and as the giver of all good gifts. Among those gracious gifts, is the gift of joy.
The joy gifted on Mary and on us is not grounded on the circumstances that we may be going through. For when things are going our way, we do not need any special help to be happy and cheerful.
God’s joy is grounded on the promise of a God that would not forsake us but rather, would go out of His way to do us good. God’s joy is just not to make us merry in the midst of the turmoil or disappointments of daily life, but it is the source of strength to face the rough road ahead of us with hope and cheer – for the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Whenever we allow ourselves to rediscover the cheerful presence of Jesus in our lives, we will receive the confidence we need to face even the darkest shadows of the future or the challenges of the unknown. In words true to Mary and true to us, “for God there is nothing impossible.”
Today’s rose candle is lit to remind us of our giftedness and the hope that there is in Jesus, the One to be born in Bethlehem, and the One who is already present in our lives.
Yes. Going through the valleys and the storms of life or facing what appear to be insurmountable odds is not laughing matter. Jesus cried at the news of the death of a dear friend. But hopeful joy is the balm that will heal any aching soul, and the source of strength to go the extra mile or to cast the net again even after a fruitless night.
According to Jesus, being of good cheer is not a vaccine against the ills of this world or the perfect raincoat to protect us from all the storms of life. Joyful hope, Advent hope, Advent joy, is what will empower us to face today’s challenges and tomorrow’s trials.
So, lighten up! Light the candle of joyful hope in your heart. Let its warming rays melt away fears and worries, for “the One who called you is faithful,” and He will see you through the bleakest night.
Ever living God: At your command light came into being. Brighten our lives with the pillar of light of your presence, and by your Spirit, renew in us the joy of your salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.