Afew years ago, we designed a worship service for the first Sunday of Advent to introduce and explain the general themes of the season, including the lighting of Advent candles. In past years, the latter had received cursory attention, consisting of a short Bible reading followed by the lighting of the corresponding candle. I saw value in giving the Advent candle themes more attention, perhaps by “illuminating” their meanings (hope, love, joy, peace) visually. We decided to create a banner for each Advent candle.
My husband, Mark, an engineering professor and a novice painter, agreed to take on the task—provided I would assist him with the lettering, provide canvases of appropriate size, and devise a way to hang them.
I purchased heavy canvas cloth, which I hemmed with rod pockets at the top and bottom to accommodate dowels for hanging as well as weighting the banners. Mark primed the canvas with white paint and got to work with his acrylics.
Reflecting on the project, Mark said, “Being a beginner at painting . . . I was worried that my banners would be an embarrassment. On the other hand, once I got going, it was fun to engage the creative process, to think about what the themes meant, and to spend time focused on painting.
“Here are the ideas I tried to capture in the banners:
“Hope: For this banner, the words of Psalm 23, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ were a part of it. Certainly my great affection for the work of J. R. R. Tolkien was in my mind, for I associate him with frequently using the theme of hope coming with the morning. Something of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and his difficult journey was rattling around in my head. I did my best to suggest a path barely visible at night with a threatening castle, but with dawn just breaking. I also think someone could think that the sun is sinking and that solace is to be found in the castle not too far off, lights in the windows.
“Love: Capturing even a small part of this theme was very hard. I felt the banner had to be very abstract and suggest something of God’s love expressed in the beauty of the earth, green grasses, colorful flowers, and sky. It’s not the first thing one thinks of at Advent, but the Incarnation did affirm God’s love for our material world in a shocking way and brought us a flowering of great joy in that holy baby.
“Joy: The joy of Advent comes to us in the darkness of night, amidst the travails of our world. The experience can overtake us when we least expect it, enliven our hearts, and then flow out like a river to feed others. While the heart is cliché, I felt I had to use it to anchor the rest of the abstract symbolism in this obvious connection of joy to the heart, conveying an unpredictable outpouring and flow. I hope one can see joy as sustaining and invigorating the heart as well as holding despair at bay.
“Peace: Nothing in nature speaks to me of peace more than flowering lily pads growing in the sun, securely moored in the shallows of a freshwater lake.
“I also created a Christ banner. Similar to the Christ candle in an Advent wreath, it is white with the word ‘Christ’ in gold spelled vertically and centered. A simple gold crown rests atop the ‘C.’”
To coordinate with the symbolism of evergreens in other parts of the sanctuary and retain the suggestion of a wreath, we suspended the banners from a pine branch cut from a tree in our yard and mounted atop two wooden poles.
That year, men and women of all ages told Mark how much they appreciated the banners. Last year we used them again, but this time our service for the first Sunday of Advent focused on expanding on the themes of the Advent candles with a short meditation on each. Each meditation was followed by a brief time of prayer and congregational song. This time the banners were hung separately, with a large pillar candle in front of each one.
At the beginning of each meditation, the appropriate pillar candle was lit, as well as a taper candle on our traditional Advent wreath. We also used images of the banners on our bulletin covers throughout Advent and created four different bookmarks, each with an image of one of the banners on the front and a related Scripture on the back.
These banners serve as a joyful expression of a phrase from the vision statement for our music ministry: “to unleash the God-given gifts of our congregation to beautify worship.”