This Sunday, many churches around the world will mark the third Sunday of Advent by lighting a pink candle on their Advent wreaths. The rest of the candles are usually either purple or blue—begging a distinctly Anglican yet thoroughly pointless argument for another day—but one alone stands as pink. Why is there a pink candle on the Advent wreath? What is its significance? And why is it the third candle?
Historically, this Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday” because, in the Latin mass, the first word of the first prayer sung or said as the clergy enter the church and approach the altar was “Gaudete,” which means “Rejoice!” And, if you have been paying attention in church these last two weeks, you might be ready for a joyful message. The lessons for the First Sunday of Advent were all about the end of the world, and last week’s readings featured the prophets, who call us to repent. This Sunday is a refreshment of sorts—a break or lightening in the somewhat somber liturgical mood typical of a season in which the altar is bedecked in purple.
Advent, though not as deliberate a season of penitence as Lent, still carries some penitential tones. In fact, this season of preparation was originally marked by black vestments and a forty-day fast that stretched from the Feast of St. Martin (November 12) until Christmas, earning it the nickname “The Lent of St. Martin.” (Thank goodness for liturgical innovation as surely one Lent is enough!) Although repentance is good for the soul, human beings need a break every now and then, and pausing in the middle of a penitential season for a breath of fresh and jubilant air can be restorative. On the Sundays that fall in the middle of both Advent and Lent, the church pauses in its desert journey, stopping to drink from the springs of an oasis of joy.
The faithful who entered the church on that day would see that the purple hangings had been removed and replaced by pink ones. Technically, the liturgical color is “rose,” which to our eyes represents a mixture of red and violet. Although physicists now question whether pink is actually a color or just a trick within our brains, the effect is the same: pink is a lighter shade of serious. It reminds us that this break is only momentary and that, next Sunday, we will return to the purple of preparation. But, for now, as long as the clergy are wearing pink stoles and the altar is draped like a rose, we can relax a little bit. We can pause long enough to find joy.
This Sunday at St. John’s, we will not change the hangings to pink—a practice largely eschewed by Protestant churches and also the reason we do not include a pink candle in our Advent wreath—but we will hear Godcalling us to rejoice. We will “sing aloud,” with God’s Daughter Zion. We will join Daughter Jerusalem and “rejoice and exult” with all our heart. We will celebrate with the prophet Zephaniah, who declares that God has “taken away the judgements against [us]” and encourages us to “fear disaster no more.” We will “sing the praises of the Lord,” who “has done great things” for us. We will listen as the apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” and then, again, he will tell us to rejoice some more. The effect is astounding, and, as I read all the lessons in succession in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I find myself dancing a little bit at my desk, unable to contain the joy called for in scripture.
But then I read the gospel lesson, in which John the Baptist calls out to the “brood of vipers” and urges them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And the flickering flame of that joyful pink candle threatens to go out under the prophetic breath of the Baptizer. Still, though, the flame burns, and I cling to it on this Gaudete Sunday. On a day of rejoicing, I feel that my task as the preacher is to figure out how the last line of the gospel lesson, in which Luke describes the preaching of John the Baptist as “good news [for] the people,” is true even (and perhaps especially) within a message of repentance. Indeed, the invitation to repentance is good news—even joyful news—and my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will guide my words and all our hearts to hear it. As I look forward to Sunday, I know that I am ready for some good news, and I hope you are, too.