Summary: Lights and Christmas go together like peas and carrots. This message series reflects on the four candles of the Advent wreath. We begin with the hope candle.
All the Pretty Lights: The Light of Hope
Luke 2: 1 – 5
You just can’t do Christmas without lights! They’re my favorite Christmas tradition. There’s much I find about Christmas challenging—not the holiday itself, but all the surrounding ado. I’d just as soon we skip most of the Christmas season, but the one thing I don’t want to skip is all the pretty lights. When our children were small, we’d load up on a chilly December evening and make our way to Tupaw subdivision in West Monroe to look at the houses that had been brilliantly decorated with lights and seasonal characters, and then we’d make our way to the northside of Monroe for a trip down Christmas Card Lane. I’m a little disappointed that both those traditions don’t exist anymore, but I still enjoy riding around and looking at all the pretty lights put up at Christmas. Of course, one can’t think about Christmas lights without thinking of Clark W. Griswold in Christmas Vacation. I’d have more lights on my house if I weren’t so much like Clark. Though, Clark is a much better man than I. He persevered and overcame. Me, not so much. Drive by my house and you’re likely to see only a few strands of lights, while though I like to see them, I’m either too lazy, too impatient, or just too cheap to do an elaborate display. But still, I love all the pretty lights.
Where does this tradition of lights at Christmas come from? The History of Christmas says that the tradition of lighting the darkness goes back to the Yule, a midwinter festival celebrated by Norsemen. The festival boasted nights of feasting, drinking Yule, the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer, and watching the fire leap around the Yule log burning in the home hearth.
The lighting of the Yule log spread throughout Europe. Many believed the log’s flame summoned the sun’s return and drove away evil spirits. Over time Christianity adopted these Norse traditions, and the light from the Yule log came to represent Jesus as Light in the darkness.
Eventually, people set candles in their windows on long winter nights to welcome weary travelers. For Christians, the candles in the windows became a symbol to welcome Mary and Joseph after their long trek to Bethlehem.
Candles were the first Christmas lights, whether you consider the candles in the windows of homes that welcomed the weary stranger, or the candles that Martin Luther is said to have attached to his Christmas tree. Walking home one night Luther was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through the evergreens he passed. To share with his family he erected a tree in his home and wired the branches with lit candles. Soon a star was affixed to the top to represent the star in the east that shone on the manger where the baby Jesus lay.
Well, there aren’t any candles on our trees. They’ve long since been replaced with electric lights (we’ll talk more about those in weeks to come), but we still light candles, and they hold significance for us as they adorn our Advent wreath, and we light one each week to reflect the nature and character of Jesus Christ who, represented by the center “Christ” candle, is the Light of the World. The Advent wreath is shaped in a perfect circle to symbolize the eternity of God. The four virtues of Jesus represented are hope, love, joy and peace.
The Advent wreath is another tradition co-opted by we Christians from pagans who used wreathes with lit candles during cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of spring. In Scandinavia during winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth. It was Martin Luther who popularized the Advent wreath when he began to use it as Christian education tool, and the way we have it today pretty much comes from the early Lutheran family tradition. Though popular in homes, the Advent wreath didn’t find much popularity in churches until the mid-1950’s.
I’ve given you a lot of history, perhaps too much, but I hope I’ve laid a foundation, not only for today, but for the weeks ahead as we look at all the pretty lights symbolized by this wreath that sits in front of us. We begin today with the first candle—the light of hope.
The first thing we need to do is get an understanding of hope. Hope is one of those words in the English language that gets overused: “I hope the rain holds off.” “I hope I get the day after Christmas off.” “I hope the Saints can win the Super Bowl this year.” In this regard, hope is about something we want or don’t want to happen. The New Testament is a bit different, though. There are two words used by the NT authors. One has to do with trust, usually in a person, and the second, most often used has to do with expectation, anticipation and confidence. As a matter of fact, a more clear understanding of hope would be “a confident expectation.” Well, I’m sorry, I hope the Saints win the Super Bowl this year, but I do not have a confident expectation that it will occur. Hear the difference? I’m not living in anticipation of its occurrence.