Pink Candles and the Game of Telephone

You may remember the game of Telephone: everyone sits in a circle, and one person begins by whispering something into the next person’s ear.  They in turn whisper it to the next person…and when it gets around the circle, you compare what the last person heard with what the first person said.  They rarely bear any resemblance to one another.

I’ve been researching the question of the Advent Wreath candles, and what I’ve discovered resembles nothing so much as a game of telephone.

Those of you who’ve been in the church for some time might recall that the candles at Bethlehem used to be purple, with one pink candle.  (This would be at least 25 years ago.)  The seasonal color was purple then as well – reflecting an earlier understanding of Advent as a penitential season.

In the late 20th century, a movement began to emphasize the anticipation and expectation that runs through Advent – and the color was shifted to the deep blue of the predawn sky.  Not all churches have adopted this change, but many have.

And depending on a number of factors, that shift to blue may have brought the pink candle along with it.  So what’s up with the pink candle, anyway?  I’ve heard lots of names for it:

*Joy Candle     *Mary Candle     *Shepherd Candle     *Rejoice Candle

Those are just a few – there’s plenty of explanations floating around the web, just as there are plenty of theories as to the origin of the wreath itself.  So which one is true?

From a liturgical/historical standpoint: Rejoice.

Um, okay, you say: we’re still two weeks away from Christmas, if we are going to start saying “rejoice” then does that mean we are going to sing Christmas carols?

Here’s the back story:  before Vatican II, the Bible lessons read at worship were still proscribed, but not with the variety we have today.  Now we have a three-year cycle that features a specific gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with John sprinkled throughout).  We hear many more parts of the Bible read through that cycle, which grew out of the Vatican II reforms of the Roman Catholic Church.

Many years ago, when we read the same lessons every year – in other words, every year you’d hear the same lessons on whatever Sunday it was – the liturgy in the Lutheran Church was structured a little differently.  It began with an Introit, or introduction, that was spoken or sung.  The Third Sunday in Advent’s Introit was:

Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men: the Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.  Ps. Lord, thou hast been favorable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

The Ps. is the Psalm verse that was attached to the Introit; those also changed each Sunday.

The idea was that you had reached the midpoint of Advent – a penitential season, remember – and this was considered a “burst of joy.”  I’ve not been able to figure out why pink, as opposed to some other color, but it could be that it appears to be the “opposite” of purple.  “Rejoice” in Latin is gaudete, so this Sunday was known as Gaudete Sunday.

It paralleled the midpoint in Lent, called Laetare Sunday (Laetare being another Latin word for  “rejoice”), which is the 4th Sunday in Lent.  The Introit for that Sunday was: “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her: all ye that love her. Rejoice for joy with her: all ye that mourn for her. Ps. I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go into the house of the Lord.  Glory be to the Father…”  Again, it was seen in the single lectionary as a joyful midpoint in the Lenten journey.  Our liturgical theology now points us more to an understanding of the Sundays during Lent being outside the 40-day count.

Both Gaudete Sunday in Advent, and Laetare Sunday in Lent, called for rose-colored paraments (decorative/symbolic cloth in the church) and vestments (worn by the presider at the liturgy).  My colleagues who lean more towards “high church” worship are quick to admit that they would have a hard time justifying such a major purchase (several thousand dollars) for only two Sundays a year.

The current ordo, or order of worship, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship does not specify an Introit.  Nor did its predecessor, Lutheran Book of Worship.  It’s not been in widespread use in most Lutheran churches since the late 70s/early 80s.  Yet the pink candle endures, without its supporting introit or reference points.  At some point it was also called “the Mary candle” – which makes no sense at all, because the Magnificat (Mary’s song) isn’t read until the 4th Sunday in Advent, in Year C.  Was it perhaps a gender association – pink for girls?

Calling the candle “the shepherds’ candle” doesn’t make any sense to me either – I’ve read explanations of “the shepherds’ joy” but again – we’re still two weeks before Christmas.  My experience has been that if you’re going to use symbols in church, they need to be clear and make sense.

The strongest symbolism that I see in the Advent wreath is what I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about marking time – and how the wreath marks both chronos time (four Sundays/weeks) and kairos time (Christ’s birth, his awaited second coming, and his entry into our lives today).  Whether those candles are pink, purple, or blue, they are equally able to mark that time.

O come, O come, Emmanuel!

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