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!

The Carols Question

Ask any pastor or church musician the dreaded question: “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols starting in November?”  Depending on their level of self-control, you may get an exasperated sigh, an eye roll, or a patient smile.  You may hear something along the lines of being counter-cultural, singing the music of Advent in Advent and the music of Christmas in Christmas.  They may try to sell you on how much great music we’ve got for Advent that we should use.  They may default to the ugly truth, which is that we’ve all been hearing these songs in stores since Halloween and we are SICK of them.

But still we long to sing them, at church.  Why is that?

An easy response would be that we like to sing them with our church community.  I think the reason for that is because we KNOW these songs.  I’ve noticed when my congregation sings a non-Christmas hymn they know really well, they sound just as good as they do on Christmas Eve.  A more complicated response would be the one that says something about how good it feels, which sounds a lot to me like nostalgia.  Our former Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, frequently cautioned the ELCA about nostalgia, which he saw as a longing for an idealized past that likely didn’t exist.

In reality, I think there are two reasons that are more subconscious, that run in the river of our soul:  the way music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings, and the way music helps us to mark time.

Pastor Laura talked with the kids a couple of weeks ago about time.  She described chronos time, which we might call “clock time.”  She pointed out the Advent Wreath as a way of marking chronos time with its 4 candles for each Sunday in Advent, and the Christ Candle for Christmas.  We have watches, calendars, and cell phones that tell us what chronos time it is.  She also talked about kairos time – Biblical time, that is “filled with God’s gracious actions and presence.”  (Keeping Time, pg. 3, Ramshaw/Tieg, 2009).  Time that is full of God and which Jesus makes complete brings a different idea of time, one that doesn’t depend on anything written or electronic.

The music of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – what the church calls “the Christmas Cycle” – marks both chronos and kairos time.  Take, for example, the Advent song “Light One Candle” which is set to a Yiddish folk tune:

Light one candle to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall bring salvation to Israel, God fulfills the promise.

Light two candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall feed the flock like a shepherd, gently lead them homeward.

Light three candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/Lift your heads and lift high the gateway for the King of glory.

Light four candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He is coming, tell the glad tidings. Let your lights be shining!

The references to the four candles of the Advent Wreath mark our chronos time.  The second half of each verse, however, exists in kairos time, looking to the prophets as well as to the future when “God fulfills the promise.”

Kairos time is solely marked by the Korean song “Come Now, O Prince of Peace” (ELW #247):

Come now, O Prince of peace, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now, O God of love, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now and set us free, O God, our Savior/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

Come, Hope of unity, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

The tune, Ososŏ, is one that is sung by people of both South and North Korea as a prayer for reunification – something that perhaps can only occur within kairos time.

Christmas carols and songs mark both chronos and kairos time, because they speak of timeless themes with both ancient and future applications, as well as of what Christ’s coming means.  The phrase that sears this into my soul is from “Silent Night”:

Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace

The dawn of redeeming grace.  That is a powerful image to carry home on Christmas Eve.

That brings us to the other reason: music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings.  How many people do you know who use the expression “with the dawn of redeeming grace” in their everyday speech?

I didn’t think you did.  Me neither.

But the poetry of hymnody, of song lyrics, captures and proclaims a part of our human existence in a unique way.  One of our former pastors, Ray Hartzell, once told me that the choices I make as a liturgist are more important than the choices the preacher makes in a sermon.  “People take the music home with them,” he said.  “That is the theology that becomes embedded in their lives, so what we say in the hymns matters.”

We Lutherans aren’t generally known for being charismatic in our worship (Bethlehem’s enthusiasm notwithstanding).  But we ARE known for our singing.  Probably has something to do with the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran.  We try to use as many great songs from each season as we can.  Here’s the thing:  Christmas carols might seem like they can’t be sung after December 25th, but that’s not the case.  The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day.  We can sing Christmas songs all through the Epiphany season too.  But just to give everyone a taste, we’ll sprinkle a carol in here and there during Advent, and let that beloved music voice our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.