The Advent candle is a call to action
The first Advent candle, which will be lit on Sunday symbolises hope
“There are two ways of spreading light,” wrote novelist Edith Wharton: “to be a candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Photograph: iStock
Liverpool football fans might be interested to know that their famous stadium has a connection with the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The ship used, the SS Great Eastern, was captained by Wicklow man Robert Halpin. The huge vessel had six main masts each of which was named after a day of the week. It is said that the mast known as Thursday, serves today as the flagpole in Anfield Football stadium. It suggests that we can look at something and not realise its full significance. For example, during the season of Advent candles will be displayed in many churches but these are not intended to be merely decorative but rather to highlight important aspects of the Christian faith.
The first Advent candle which will be lit tomorrow symbolises hope, It is sometimes called the “Prophecy Candle” in honour of the prophets of the Old Testament one of whom, Isaiah, provides the first reading for tomorrow’s liturgy. Prophecy is not about making wild guesses about the future – Jesus makes that clear in the gospel reading – but rather points to a better way of living and a more hopeful future.
Some find it difficult to be hopeful in the restless confusion of our time, feeling that the world may have slipped beyond the control of God. But the same could have been said of Isaiah’s day. The nation was failing and to make matters worse it was faced with political and military threats from outside. Yet for the prophet this was the time to look to and work for the future because despite the signs to the contrary he insisted the future was worth living for.
The German-born US theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich gave this advice: “For if you find hope in the ground of history, you are united with the great prophets who were able to look into the depth of their times, who tried to escape it, because they could not stand the horror of their visions, and yet who had the strength to look to an even deeper level and there to discover hope.”
That is exactly what Isaiah does, despite all the bad stuff that was going on around him. He envisages a coming together of people from all directions, from fractured communities and divided empires. In the yet to be established future all eyes will turn to Mount Zion which represents the divine reality rather than a building or a plot of land in a certain place: “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob . . .; He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
We may feel that such a hope is way beyond us, but that, according to the prophets, is God’s promise. Meanwhile, we can all contribute to the vision within our spheres of influence, family, workplace, community and so on. The epistle sees this as darkness giving way to light: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.”
“There are two ways of spreading light,” wrote novelist Edith Wharton: “to be a candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
The charity, Amnesty International, uses the image of a lighted candle wrapped in barbed wire as its logo, representing “the darkness” (hopelessness) of people imprisoned unjustly or denied basic human rights. Their work on behalf of the abused and forgotten reflects the teaching of Jesus Christ and shows that it is possible to make a difference now. The Advent candle underlines that point. It is not a liturgical trimming – it is a call to action.