Last Saturday I was doing a stint as day chaplain at Hereford Cathedral. I like to go down there from time to time and just spend a day wandering about, chatting to visitors and doing my best to answer the questions they have, and saying prayers every hour on the hour. And having a nose round the Cathedral shop, where last Saturday I found they had some “real Advent calendars” - others are available, but these are the real ones. What makes them real? Fairtrade chocolate for a start, but also the Christmas story, told in the windows you open, and also in a little booklet that comes with it. They’ve got them in Tesco as well, if you’re interested.
I bought three, one for each grandchild, though we do expect a fourth to have arrived by Christmas. Mind you, he’ll not need any chocolate just yet. So I went from Hereford to Bromsgrove, where Evie and Alex and Ben live, and presented them with their Advent calendars as well as managing to cadge a bit of their evening meal. They were busy learning Christmas songs for their school nativity play, including this one which I knew. It goes:
"Light a candle in your window, let the night know that you care,
Light a candle in the window, it may guide the Christ child there."
As well as Advent calendars, we also always gave the children in my church when my own kids were the age of my grandchildren now, Advent candles. They were marked with dates down the side of the candle, along with some festive holly leaves, and you lit the candle each day and let it burn down to tomorrow’s date. Another way of counting down the four weeks of Advent. Well, we say four weeks but in fact it’s four Sundays. Today is as late as the season of Advent can start, because this year Christmas Eve and the last Sunday of Advent are one and the same, and Advent is just three weeks and a day.
But I do rather like candles. Candles can be found more in chapels these days than they used to be, but they are of course much more church than chapel, and high church at that. We have lots at the cathedral of course, quite a few points in the cathedral where people can light candles as a focus for prayer, and maybe to remember someone, and people do that in great numbers. Two weeks ago we had a baptism at one of the churches I help at, and we gave a lighted candle to the newly baptized child - or in fact to her older brother to hold for her - while we prayed that she would “shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God.” Candles used in this way become signs of new life, hope, new beginnings. On the altar or communion table of a church candles are used as symbols of holiness and prayer, and signs of blessing. But we use candles in plenty of other places too. On the dinner table, for example, where candles can stand for fellowship, friendship, family - and, of course, romance.
But it's when we get power cuts that any candles we might have really come into their own. Till then they’ve been a delightful optional extra, but suddenly they become essential. I hope you've been stocking up, as my sixth sense tells me this is going to be a long winter, and power cuts are generally part of the package.
There's a click, and suddenly it's all gone dark. "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here" has vanished from your TV screen, the joint remains half-roasted in your oven (I speak here for those like me who lack an Aga). Even if you’re not electrically heated you’re in trouble, because the pump on the central heating has stopped. We scrabble to find a match, and to find a candle and a saucer to stand it on; but then at least we've got enough light to do something: in my case to find the basket of logs, so that we can get the burner lit and heat as much of the house as we can reach. We've got a fair few logs I think, and if we do run out then we start chopping up the furniture.
Usually the power isn’t off all that long. But sometimes it is. Thank goodness we had some candles in, we say. We don’t manage very well without light, but even the fragile light of a single candle is enough light to roll back the darkness and keep us sane.
Many churches and chapels these days have Advent candle rings: four candles (no jokes please) round the ring to count down the Sundays to Christmas, and one in the centre for the Christ child himself. Each candle around the ring represents one component of the narrative of Advent: the scriptures themselves; the great prophets who foretold the new things God would do; John the Baptist, the forerunner who prepared the way; and Mary’s obedient yes to the angel’s message to her. For me the candles of the Advent ring are a reminder that the spiritual countdown to Christmas is every bit as important as all the other things we dash about to do. More important, really: for the season of Advent isn’t only about getting ready to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem - it’s also a chance to think about his second coming, and to reflect on the theme of judgement and the ultimate sorting out of things.
Is it fair to say that Christians these days don’t seem to think as much about judgement as maybe our forbears did in the days of fire and brimstone sermons? Or for that matter, going further back, the sort of New Testament congregations that Paul was writing to. Since those early year another two thousand have rolled round, and they seem to keep rolling. In the first century Paul and Peter were writing to churches whose members expected that second coming almost any day. They believed they were living in the last days. I don’t know how confident you are about the state of the world today: there’s plenty to worry about - global warming, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks or maybe a rogue asteroid, but the last judgement as prophesied in scripture is not usually uppermost in our minds.
Candles could remind us just how dark a place the world can be. Candles are often a sign of love, but those who light candles of love - especially in the troubled places and situations of our world - often make themselves vulnerable, a target even. Candles at Advent can remind us that God - who is love - makes himself vulnerable among us as the child newborn whose praises we’ll be singing three weeks from now. Jesus is hailed as the King of Love. But remember, he is also the King of justice and righteousness, and we and the world stand under his judgement.
Light a candle in the window, let the night know that you care, goes the carol my grandchildren are learning. At the Millennium we handed out candles to every member of our church in Minsterley, as did people in churches and chapels up and down the land: what was asked that as the year 200 dawned there should be a candle lit in every Christian window. It was I think one of those occasions when those of us who’re often meeting in very small groups in our own church or chapel are reminded just what a lot of us there really are.
The reason Christmas is celebrated at this time of the year is that this is the darkest time, this is the time when the world is in most need of light. We don’t know when Jesus was actually born, but now is a good time to celebrate him: as light kindled in the depths of winter; as light when the world seems uncaring and cruel, as light when life seems futile and hope goes begging. When we light a candle we don’t usually stop at one (especially if there’s a power cut); from the first light we light more. And from the light of Christ many lights of love have been lit and are lit still, and the darkness is driven back, and the night does know that we care. What do these lights consist of? Acts of love and charity, of compassion and care, work to heal and restore and build bridges of peace, to seek out the lost and raise up the fallen. Acts in which we imitate and pass on the love of our Lord.
When you use one candle to light another, and so on so that many are lit, sometimes you’ll look back to see that the original candle has gone out. It’s done its job, and other lights must now carry the work on. We look back and give thanks for those whose lights, whose Christian witness and teaching, have helped to start us burning. But the light that starts it all, the light first lit among us at Bethlehem, that light, once lit, burns for ever. That love, once revealed, lasts for ever. That hand once raised to bless, is a continual and forever blessing for our world.
The child born as a new light is also the King for whom we wait, who promises to come to us and comes in judgement, so that we will one day answer before him. When he comes, how will he find us? How will he find the Church that bears his name? Will we be sleepy and forgetful, will our candles be burning low and guttering out? Or will we be found alert and watchful, caring, compassionate, passing on the flame: with care and courage and prayer, and with a faith that isn’t just a Sunday faith, lighting new candles to reflect and share his love?