As I’m sure you noticed, today we lit the pink candle in our Advent wreath. The pink candle is a bit of a hold over from an older way of thinking about Advent. You see, Advent used to be much more like Lent in its solemn emphasis on fasting and repentance. (In fact, just for your store of useless liturgical knowledge, Advent was originally c a 40-day season, just like Lent. I, for one, wish that it had stayed that way because I can’t get enough of this season!) Nevertheless, Advent was shortened to the four Sundays which come before Christmas, and in even more recently, Advent has moved away from its Lenten feel to be seen as a season of hope and expectation – hence our use of the color blue – the color of the night sky just before dawn. But the pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent was originally meant to signify a lightening of the restrictions of Advent, a sort of seventh-inning stretch of joy in a solemn season. The old name of the third Sunday in Advent was Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word Gaudete meaning rejoice, inspired by the ancient introit to the mass for this day from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Pink, then, is the color of rejoicing, a respite from Advent’s solemnity.
But if we no longer observe Advent in sack cloth and ashes, do we need a seventh-inning stretch of joy?
I say yes.
Advent may not be so somber anymore, but it’s worth noting that, even as we approach Christmas, the world can be a pretty grim place. The war in Ukraine drags on, while some are now saying that the threat of nuclear conflict is increasing. Data from Greenland’s ice sheet suggests that it is melting at a much faster rate than previously predicted, causing projections of sea-level rise to jump. Recent studies have shown that a growing percentage of Black and Indigenous children are being subjected to racist experiences, while the racism embedded in our systems continues to deny many of dignity and opportunity. So yes, even though we don’t see this time of year so somberly any more, we still need a reason to rejoice. Plus, even amidst the holiday spirit, there can be dimness within. Some of us feel that dimness all of the time, and all of us feel it some of the time. This season, with all of its forced frivolity and manic merriness, can serve to highlight the rejoicing that we don’t feel. Light the pink candle.
Because the pink candle is about rejoicing. The pink candle is about joy. So how do we find joy in spite of what may or may not be going on in the world or inside us?
Listen again to the beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” Think about that image for a moment: the image of the land rejoicing. Land doesn’t feel happiness or sadness. Land doesn’t feel anything. It just is. What would happen if we just let ourselves be how we are? We put a lot of pressure on ourselves at this time of year to feel the holiday cheer. But whether you feel happy or sad or you feel nothing at all, be like the desert. Be yourself. And know that who you are at your core is a person that God loved so much that Jesus came into the world to be with us. In that knowledge is joy. Joy can’t be forced. But like the desert, which doesn’t try to blossom but just responds to the rains by breaking into bloom, let joy happen within you in response to Jesus’ love. And whatever measure of joy is born in you, whether your joy looks like a rose in summer or like the poor little dandelion I saw struggling to hang on in the yard this week, know that your joy, no matter how magnificent or humble, is in Jesus.
The other place that Isaiah’s words help me to find true joy comes a little later in the passage when he writes about a highway in the wilderness, a highway which will safely lead the people home. Isaiah is speaking to ancient Israel, a people who had been defeated and carried off into exile in a foreign land, a people who were longing for the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes, that’s how I feel: like a stranger in a world whose values I do not share and whose comforts I do not enjoy. That’s when I try to remind myself that we are at home when we are with God. And since Jesus came to live with us at Christmas, since he promised to be with us always, he is at home with us here. He is our home. We don’t need to look out in the world for joy – it is here (in our hearts). The rest of the holiday trappings – the parties, the decorations, the gifts – they may bring us happiness for a while – but they are all really secondary to the message that Christ is with us here. We are already home. Therein lies joy.
Our way of marking Advent may have changed from purple to blue, from sorrow and penitence to hope and expectation, but there’s still plenty of purple to life, and I’m kind of glad we still have this pink candle. Because pink is the color of the clouds when the sun is getting ready to break over the land. And just as we cannot stop the sun from rising, neither can we keep the joy of Jesus from blossoming up within us. As we come closer and closer to the day of Jesus’ birth, may you be absolutely convinced that the light of the Son of God is about to break over you. That is joy. Awake and greet the new morn. Come, Lord Jesus.