“Watch and pray at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:36
This is the beginning of a new church year, a new liturgical year which is all built around the reading of the gospel according to St. Luke. Many of us have a particular love of Advent, its customs, its music, its ceremonies and symbols. And the preeminent symbol, liturgical symbol at least, of Advent is the advent wreath. The advent wreath is of Lutheran origin and has spread to I think every nook and cranny of the universal church. You can find advent wreaths everywhere these days. And in my childhood memory of the advent wreath, there was a wreath with four white candles and, as you know, each Sunday one is lit until they are all lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and then the wreath gives way to the Christmas tree filled with light and symbolizing the coming of the true light that enlightens every man, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
Simple things, however, can become… complicated. And they usually do! Somewhere along the line, the candles became purple. Well, almost purple. One of them is not purple; one of them is pink, or rose. And when that happened, one of the questions I’ve been asked repeatedly for the last thirty or forty years is, “What’s with that pink candle anyway? What’s that about?” “When is it lit, and why isn’t it the same color as all the others?” This has become to me what I call the Great Advent Mystery.
Here I should mention (then again, I probably shouldn’t), that there’s also a custom of red advent candles, but why complicate matters even more than they already are? As for the rose or pink candle, it’s lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Rejoice Sunday after the Latin introit for the day, and was meant to relieve the penitential atmosphere of the season. Purple, you see, is the color of penance in christian symbolism, and Advent was for centuries understood to be a little Lent, a season of fasting and prayer and preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Savior, just as Lent prepares us similarly through fasting and prayer for the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
Well, penance fell out of favor quite some time ago. I suspect that it was maybe in the 1960s. Maybe it was in 1967. For those of you who are under fifty, that was the “summer of love.” In any event, who wants to think of their sins anyway? Right? Especially during this happy time when every store is playing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer! And so the color of Advent changed to blue (unless, of course, you’re in the chapel where it’s still purple). So you can take your pick, whether you want to have a happier blue Advent or a penitential purple Advent. And then of course, blue is chosen because it’s the color of the Blessed Virgin Mary; it’s the color of hope. And that raises the question finally of, what do we do about that pink candle? Since Advent is no longer a penitential season, do we still need the pink candle? Why can’t we just have all blue candles? Well, that’s a good question. An imponderable question that I’m not prepared to answer.
Well, that’s how simple things become complicated.
The whole pattern of the biblical narrative is one of promise and fulfillment. And the first Sunday of Advent is an annual occasion to remember our Lord’s promise to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to bring all things to fulfillment in God. The truth is that that’s a promise that’s easy to forget. After all, it’s been two thousand years since our Lord made that promise, and there are so many other things to think about, for instance, like the color of the candles on the advent wreath.
And it’s about that very thing that our Lord warns us in Luke’s gospel.
“Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away. But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down in dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare, for it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” Luke 21:33-35
In a world heedless of the living God and as indifferent to His promises as it is hostile to His commandments, our greatest threat may be what the Lord calls the cares of this life. And in truth, while the world may be fleeing from God, it nevertheless demands that we care. Care, that is, about the things that the world cares about. The cares of this life multiply extravagantly. It seems that as soon as one problem is solved or one anxiety overcome, two, four, or six others rise up to take its place. And without doubt these cares do take us away from God; they dull our memory of both His commandments and His promises, and lead us into the realm of forgetfulness. It’s this forgetfulness that the Lord is cautioning us against. The remedy He tells us is to watch and pray. By watchfulness and prayer we will overcome the distracting presence of our inevitable cares. We can watch and pray anywhere and everywhere, even while shopping for those Christmas presents. And maybe that’s the best time and place to watch and to pray. All that’s required of us is the remembrance of God and His promises.
And so the colors of the advent season may change and evolve, but they’re all appropriate. Advent is a time for repentance, that is, a time to turn away from sin and turn to the living God. So purple is right. And it’s a time to rejoice because God has promised us the kingdom. And so rose is good. And it’s a time to hope because when we stand before the Lord on the last day, we will not stand before Him as strangers but as His own adopted brothers and sisters. And so blue, the color of hope, is good.
The first Christians believed that the best thing that will ever happen to this world will be the coming of the Lord in glory. They expected it to happen any day, and they prayed for it continuously. May our Lord grant us the grace to watch and to pray for His appearing.
The following sermon is re-published from the book Nobody Reads Leviticus, written by Fr. Ivor Kraft. Books can be purchased at St. Michael’s Book Shop, or ordered online at lulu.com.