Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Pink Candle

My sons go to a preschool at a Methodist Church here in Decatur. The older of them brought home a neat thing to stick on the refrigerator. It's a paper Advent calendar with "unlit" candles arranged in a circular though two-dimensional "wreath." Not all that surprisingly, there are three purple candles and one pink candle on the outside of the "wreath" and one white candle in the center of the paper. Paper-clipped near the bottom of the piece of construction paper were four yellow "flames," which one is supposed to affix to the remaining three Advent candles and the central Christ candle. But right above the paper flames is the confusing part. The teacher has encouraged her students to affix the flames in the following order: purple (actually affixed while at school), purple, purple, pink, white.

I know my child's teacher, and I like her a lot. She's got the perfect mix of love and discipline and instruction that a preschool teacher needs--especially with my four-year-old in her class. But I must take exception to her churchmanship (ironic archaic gender-specificity intended).

As Steve Pankey reminded us yesterday, this is Gaudete Sunday, and it's supposed to be joyful. It's the third Sunday of Advent--the season once known as "St. Martin's Lent." During Advent, we're purple for a reason (an argument for another day), but historically the church took a break from the intensity of the penitential, preparatory season and changed the color from purple (yes, purple) to pink. The word "gaudete" means "rejoice," and, at this "half-way point," we focus on a little bit of joy before returning to the solemnity of Advent. The third Sunday--Gaudete Sunday--comes with a physical and metaphorical "lightening" of the purple to a color actually called "rose" instead of "pink."

Some people mistakenly place the pink candle on the fourth Sunday because they think it's "Mary's Sunday." Actually, Joseph is usually bedecked in pink, and Mary is typically shown in blue, so there's no real traction there. Yes, the fourth Sunday in Advent often features the holy family in the gospel lesson, but, again, the pink isn't about Mary's Sunday.  So, altar guilds everywhere, be sure to deck your altars and lecterns with pink hangings. Clergy, make sure to don your pink stoles and chasubles (whatever they are). It's pink Sunday this Sunday! So, if your Advent wreath has a pink candle, make sure to light it this week.

But, if your altar will remain purple and your clergy will refuse to put on pink stoles, by all means take the pink candle out of your Advent wreath!!! How many of us have pink candles in our wreaths but have no other pink in our churches? No wonder my child's preschool teacher thinks the pink candle comes fourth! We shouldn't confuse congregations by inserting a pink candle with no logical, liturgical, or theological rationale. But the readings give us a reason to rejoice, so preachers have a chance to redeem their parish's traditional faux pas. Preach joy and pretend to wear pink.

Yes, as Steve points out, there's joy in Mary's Song, and many preachers will choose that this week, but I find myself drawn to the joy of Jesus' reply to John the Baptist. I think that's the real joy here--that the kingdom of God has broken in and has manifested itself as "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." That's why Jesus' Advent (both of them) is an occasion for joy. We celebrate the arrival of a kingdom that isn't the kind of kingdom the world expects. This is God's kingdom, and it shows up when things like those Jesus was known for happen. Rejoice that the blind can see! Celebrate that the deaf can hear! Marvel in the good news being brought to the poor. Really, that's the content of Mary's song, too, but I'm hearing that more clearly in Jesus' definitive declaration to John. Wait for another? No, it's here now.

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