Christmas has been coming since the end of September, judging by the inventory that appears in many stores at that time of year. Hallowe’en candy and Christmas cards somehow appear side by side in October. As November advances, the Christmas section in commercial settings gets ever larger.
The specifically Christian season that leads up to Christmas is called Advent; it begins tomorrow with the 1st Sunday of Advent. There are denominational variations of how to mark the four Sundays of Advent, but generally the theme is preparing for the coming of Christ. Historically, some traditions have stressed preparation by fasting and repentance. Sometimes the “coming” is the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and sometimes the anticipated coming also refers to the Second Coming – a kind of apocalyptic end of history event associated with a last judgment and a second coming of Christ. At other times, the emphasis is on the idea of coming in that Christians are encouraged to allow a daily coming of Christ in their hearts, not just on Christmas Eve. In this sense, Advent is understood as a celebration of peace and good will, culminating in Christmas itself.
It is coincidental that the Jewish festival of Chanukah begins at sundown on Sunday. In that it is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights, with the lighting of a menorah, Chanukah looks to the casual observer a bit like the Christian custom of lighting successive candles during Advent
Christians probably started celebrating Advent (from Latin “adventus”, meaning coming”) in the late 5th Century AD, making it a much later tradition than Chanukah. Lighting candles in churches was common practice, so it wouldn’t have been much of a shift to create an Advent Wreath, with four candles on the outside and a Christ Candle in the middle. The Lutheran Church in Germany is generally credited as initiating the evergreen Advent wreath in the 16th Century. The custom soon spread to other churches. Today many people also have an Advent wreath at home. Children like lighting candles and I suspect adults are also drawn to this Advent practice.
Lighting candles and decorating our houses with greenery and Christmas lights, are perhaps the external rituals of an inner quest. In a secular culture, we distance ourselves from things overtly religious. Yet the spiritual impulse that inspired the faithful to adapt existing cultural practices for a religious purpose, remains the same. Lighting candles in the midst of winter darkness suggests mystery, awe, peace, hope.
Although the world is a troubled place filled with dark times, we know there is also the possibility of enlightened humanity, peace with justice, a community of spirit that transcends divisions of religion, nationalism, ethnic strife. The fentanyl crisis is a dark reality but there flickers a flame of hope in the work of Emergency Responders and those who create treatment centers. Refugees are unjustly victims of civil war or oppression in many countries but we also sponsor refugees to Canada. We hope for the coming of those signs of healing and light in a world where we are made all too aware of the darkness.
Advent is about candle lighting and anticipating the birth of Jesus; both are intended as signs of hope in the dark days of winter, both literal and figurative. Happy Advent!
Larry Scott is a retired United Church minister living in Victoria.
You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the tImes Colonist on Saturday, December 1st.
Advent wreath photo by Micha L. Rieser [Wikimedia]