A View from the Pew: Lighting the Advent Wreath

I did not grow up in a faith tradition that set stuff on fire as a part of the worship service.

With the exception of that time one of the deacons set the church lawn on fire while trying to get rid of fire ants, I don’t remember much fire at church during my formative years.

My strongest recollection of fire and faith is a bonfire service at church camp, and that, obviously, took place outdoors. If I try hard, I can recall faint memories of candles at weddings, but otherwise, my iconoclastic Baptist upbringing was devoid of open flame indoors.

That all changed when, as a young adult, the church I joined introduced me to Advent, the four-week period of preparation, prayer, and fasting leading up to the celebration of Christmas. It not only gave layers of meaning to the otherwise crass and empty commercialism that Christmas had become, it gave me rituals to mark the passage of time, contemplation of prophecy, and, yes, the unpredictability of fire in the church.

I may not have grown up with Advent, which has Lutheran origins in the 16th century, but my kids have, and I believe they are better for it. It’s especially meaningful for them because we have been recruited as a family several times over the years to read Scripture, recite a devotional thought, voice a prayer, and light the candle of the week.

Now that my boys are 20, 16 and 13, worries about their ability to maneuver with fire in worship aren’t as acute. But when they were smaller, particularly the years one of them was held in my arms, the anxiety over what might happen with the lighting of the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love candles was real. This year, we have been asked to light the Christ candle at the Christmas Eve service, and I can’t help but feel a bit of trepidation.

I’m not worried that we’ll set the place on fire anymore. My fears are less practical and more profound. What will it mean for us as a family to announce to our community of faith that Christ has come into the world? Will it be an ideal we strive to live up to all year long or a momentary ritual that fades as soon as we shift our attention to opening gifts on Christmas morning?

This opportunity is a book-end experience to my participation in a Good Friday service back before my family was complete. My role in that service was to carry the Christ candle from the front of the sanctuary down the center aisle and out of the church, symbolizing the removal of Christ’s presence. I will never forget the moment when I reached the narthex and realized I had to snuff out the Christ candle, and I couldn’t help but feel like a jolt of electricity, the conviction that I had many times in my life snuffed out Christ’s witness by my actions.

This Christmas Eve as one of our family lights the Christ candle and we read the scripture devotional thought and voice a prayer, my thoughts will turn to a more positive idea: how can I bring the illuminating presence of Christ to the world? It’s a risky thought, I know, but I think it can be transformative.

May your Advent be a season of the unpredictable as you discover ways to bring the light of Christ to a world in need of the Messiah.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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