To me, a Catholic theology student fascinated by the quiet poetry of the Church, one of the most beautiful moments of the Advent season is the lighting of the candles for the Advent wreath. It is a vivid, visible symbol of the Incarnation, a flame by which the Church and the world become progressively illuminated as Christmas nears. Every week we receive the warmth of a different light – of hope, peace, joy, and love – with each flame building upon the others, anticipating the Incarnation of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
I was fortunate to have experienced Advent in a Trappist monastery, witnessing there the rich symbolism of the candle-lighting within the liturgy. Each Saturday, evening prayer began in darkness, the chapel still and quiet. Dwelling in silence, it was beautiful to know that soon the darkness would be dispelled by light, like the radiance soon to shine forth with Christmas.
Yet in the readings from the first Sunday of Advent, there is a starker tone that makes me pause: Isaiah reminds the people of their perpetual wandering away from God, which makes them forgetful and hardhearted, to the point that they become “withered leaves.” In the Gospel, Jesus provides the disciples and us with the word of the season: “Watch!” He exhorts each of us to stay alert, for we do not know when the Lord will return. Interestingly, Jesus mentions moments of the day - evening, midnight, dawn - when we are likely to find ourselves drowsy or groggy, less than alert; the passage suggests that such times call for special vigilance, lest we become overly attached to our customary understanding of wakefulness and action.
Entering into this new liturgical year, darkness has taken a real, global form. By now, most of us have known someone who had COVID, or have fallen ill ourselves. Some, sadly, are mourning deaths of loved ones. This has been a year in which we have been forced into vigilance, as we await a vaccine, economic relief, and most of all, a return to some semblance of normality. Considering the past year, I realize I too have been awaiting a light to pierce the darkness and show me its meaningfulness, to prove that all the sacrifices and all the deaths have not been in vain.
Yet, I try not to disdain the darkness so quickly, as something to be forgotten once all this passes. It cannot simply be the striking backdrop for light to appear more beautiful, or for amusedly reminiscing the craziness of 2020. People have died, businesses and livelihoods ruined; for some, the truism that “life goes on” no longer applies. It forces a more fundamental recognition of the ways in which we may perpetuate darkness, as when we allow ourselves to slip into forgetfulness of others’ suffering.
Reflecting upon COVID in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis suggests that the pandemic has had and continues to have an apocalyptic effect, revealing the world’s self-deluded confidence in its own techniques and projects, as well as the sobering interconnectedness where now we are forced to recognize the fact that we, rich and poor, black and white, share the same air. His hope is that the world will not forget the tears it has shed because of COVID but instead will work towards “rebirth” and undertake the work of real, global solidarity.
The last candle of the Advent wreath, of love, completes the circle. Some suggest this signifies the all-encompassing infinity of God’s love that, through Christ, delivers all things to their fulfillment. I wholeheartedly agree, but I think it is important to remember the three preceding candles. For a week hope must flicker alone, awaiting peace, then joy, and then love. It means, symbolically, that the flame must be fed in times of darkness, by acts of hope, peace and joy, so that future flames may be lit, and the love of God ignited. Only then can the center candle, representing the light of Christ, be lit. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the reading from Isaiah will proclaim “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Let us be people who know deep in their hearts what this means.
Evan is a first-year student at Aquinas Institute of Theology, working towards a master of arts degree in theology.