The most obvious C is Christ Child. After all, were it not for the birth of Jesus, there would be no need for Advent, right? Along with all the other liturgical seasons, Jesus really is the “Reason for the Season,” isn’t he, even if Pentecost isn’t really about Jesus the person so much as the message he left behind? But how many times during the run-up to Christmas do people really stop and think about Jesus, except maybe on Sunday mornings between the hours of, say, 8-11 AM? Advent is like the prenatal part of life, somewhat hidden yet with occasional reminders of the impending birth. It’s an internal thing, not always obvious to the casual observer but intensely personal and private except when the news is so good that the prospective parents just have to share with all and sundry. That’s what the coming of the Christ child should mean, if we let it, because, after all, the word Advent comes from the Latin for “arrival” or “coming.”
Then there is the C for Crèche, a French word for the tableau of the nativity itself, complete with figures of all the major characters and groups represented. Whether made of fine porcelain, stick figures or almost any other conceivable materials, there are usually representations of shepherds, wise men (magi), angels, sheep, camels, and perhaps donkeys in addition to Mary and Joseph bent over the manger or standing guard over it. Usually the baby Jesus isn’t added until the actual Eve of Christmas or perhaps Christmas Day, but everybody else is there waiting, even if biblically none of them arrived until after the birth had taken place and possibly even a couple of months to several years later. Many churches have them, and are careful not to overpopulate the nativity scene until the time is right, often having the magi move toward the manger in stages during the Christmas season, coming from somewhere in the church to land in the scene on Epiphany, the next season in the liturgical year. Still, the crèche is a great teaching tool, and something even adults feel is important to have around during Advent and Christmas.
One of the conspicuous marks of Advent is the Advent wreath with its five candles. Depending on the tradition, three of the candles are purple or blue, one is pink and one is white. Roman Catholics and some other traditions use purple, a color also associated with royalty but also with penitence which is why it is used in Lent. For some Anglicans/Episcopalians and some Lutherans, the purple of royalty/penitence has been replaced with a rich blue representing hope, expectation and joy. The Anglican/Episcopal tradition explains that the blue came from the Sarum Use or Rite, the way things were done at Salisbury Cathedral starting in about the 7th Century. The Sarum Use is important to us because Thomas Cranmer incorporated some of it into the Book of Common Prayer. Other candles on the wreath are pink for Gaudete Sunday, a lightening of the penitential burden for a day, and white for the Christ candle, the one we also use as the candle that burns at every celebration of baptism through the entire year.
Candles decorate our homes as well, whether there is an Advent wreath or not. Candles still have a symbolism that a lot of people, especially Christians, don’t always associate with Advent or even with Christ. One of the titles of Jesus is “Light of the World,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean an incandescent, fluorescent or neon light. Light to the ancients meant the sun, a fire, a torch or a tiny oil lamp. A light made darkness less scary and gave some protection against unpleasant surprises that couldn’t be seen otherwise. When the power goes out and night falls, what is more comforting than the flame of a candle pushing back the edges of the darkness? In days before electricity, the sight of a candle or lamp in the window was the sign of welcome to the traveler. What better symbol for Christ in the world than a simple candle? And who’s to say that a person can’t be a figurative candle in time of need? Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had a television program in the early days of the medium and everybody, Roman Catholic or not, could sing the theme song, “It is better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark.” Anyone who has endured a power outage can attest to that, even those who have stumbled along in the darkness of depression or acedia. One candle can make a difference.
Be a candle for someone today as perhaps a new Advent tradition. Light the way for the Christ child.