Light a Candle Every Day

Recovering an Earlier Advent Tradition

All families develop rituals and traditions. In one family, the grandmother always cut off one end of the Easter ham and baked it in a separate pan. When someone eventually asked Grandma about the symbolism behind this ritual, she laughed and said there was no symbolism. For the many decades she’d been in charge of the Easter feast, she’d never had a pan big enough to hold the whole ham, so she always cut it. It was as simple as that.

Most religious rituals, on the other hand, do have significant symbolism, although in some cases the original meaning and practice is questionable. Sometimes legitimate symbolism is read into or added onto established traditions. The practices themselves also shift. This is true of Advent, which for several generations has been overwhelmed by preparations for Christmas.

Advent actually began not as preparation for Christmas, but in expectation of Christ’s second coming. His first coming as the baby in Bethlehem did not get much attention as the church began to develop its cycle of celebrations; apparently birthdays were not all that important in Mediterranean cultures at that time.

In contemporary practice, Advent has come to be virtually indistinguishable from Christmas. What pastor or music director has not engaged the battle over singing Christmas carols in church before December 24, and how many have been able to hold the line completely? Concerts, pageants, and sanctuary decorations force us past the purple and blue of expectation into shining white and gold (or red and green, which are completely out of liturgical season).

Recovering Advent

What would it take to recover Advent, not as a marker of Christ’s return, but as a season related to yet distinct from the nativity festival? One key is managing time—both the digital and the liturgical varieties. There’s plenty of advice out there about how efficient time management can help reduce holiday stress. But managing liturgical time appropriately might help even more by setting a different kind of rhythm than that of the surrounding culture.

Early Christians lit Advent bonfires as markers for the Savior’s return. At some point, as the focus shifted from the returning King to the newborn one, candles replaced the larger fires. One benefit was that they could be brought indoors. Initially one candle was lit for each day of the Advent season, rather than one for each week.

Rehearsing Jesus’ Family Tree

Two years ago, we decided to draw out the meaning of the season in our weekly services (as well as put the brakes on it a little) by returning to the practice of lighting a candle for every day of Advent. Our middle school students were comparing the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, so we created a liturgy incorporating the names on those lists, rehearsing the family tree that leads to Jesus.

Two problems became obvious very quickly: first, the lists include different numbers and different names, and neither has the right number for the days of Advent. Second, that approach leaves out some major characters who surely should be counted as part of the pre-story of Jesus. So we changed the list to include people like Moses, Esther, Jonah, and several of the prophets, as well as John the Baptist and his family and Simeon and Anna. Believing that the story of Jesus offers redemption for the whole world, we also included Caesar and Herod.

Advent is like the shopping season in that it has a variable number of days. That means more candles in some years than in others. The year this liturgy was written there were exactly twenty-five days from the start of the season through Christmas Eve. Since that is not always true, the sample liturgy that follows includes a list of additional names for years when there are more than twenty-five days. In other years, some would need to be left out or combined with others. Another possibility would be to add non-biblical historical figures or contemporary figures, perhaps pairing them with biblical counterparts.

First Sunday of Advent

Hope

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

Candle Lighting

Today is a day of hope. For generations, Christians have used four candles to represent four great themes that rise from our faith in Jesus: hope, peace, joy, and love. We start with hope, because hope is always alive, like the evergreens we use to decorate our homes and churches while we wait for Jesus.

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, when Christians started using rituals to learn and tell our common story, they lit one new candle for every day of Advent, so that the light would get brighter and brighter until the day Jesus comes. This season we go back to those beginnings, and we light every candle in the name of people who are part of our story on the way to Jesus.

We light this first candle in the name of Adam and Eve, the first people the Bible names. They were people of the earth, called up from the same elements as all other things. They lived in a natural paradise, surrounded by lush greenery. The evergreens we use this season connect us to them and remind us of God’s constant care for all of life.

Our first parents were fooled into believing that there was no limit to what they could do in the good creation, and so they needed the new light that Jesus would bring.

[Light one purple candle.]

Song: “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” (st. 1) With One Voice 630

Prayer

Hope of all life: come to us this season. We are surrounded by your resources, yet we feel poor. In the company of our neighbors, we still feel lonely. With your gift of life, death still brings us grief. We are empty and need to be filled. Forgive us, great Promise; lead us into silence so that we may watch and listen and ponder the hope that we have in the promised coming of Jesus, and all that his presence means. Amen.

Song: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” PH 5, PsH 341, TH 193, WR 232

Second Sunday of Advent

Peace

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 60:1-4

Candle Lighting

The life Jesus brings is the light of the world, so we light candles to welcome his life among us and to remember all the people who have walked in this story of faith. Like the Christians of earlier times, we light one candle for every day of our Advent waiting, and name some of those who have shared this journey.

Today we light a candle of hope.

[Light one purple candle.]

And we light a candle of peace for Cain and Abel, the first brothers, to remember how quickly humans hurt each other, and to remember that God loves and protects even those who do terrible things.

[Light another purple candle.]

We light candles for Noah and his family, who were judged faithful even as they were mocked by the wicked world around them.

[Light one of the daily candles after each of these sections.]

For Abraham and Sarah, who answered the call to go to a far place and trusted God’s most surprising promises; and Hagar and Ishmael, who were protected against human spite.

For Isaac and Rebekah, who served the Lord even in their quarrels and deception.

For Jacob and his brother, Esau, and Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, who also proved faithful in spite of their flaws.

For Joseph, the dreamer, who trusted that evil could be turned to good, and who returned to his brothers good for the evil they did to him.

For Moses and Aaron, who were puzzled by the word of the Lord, but proved its might as they spoke what they were told.

Song: “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” (st. 1-2)

Prayer

Jesus Christ, Promise of peace for all people, we need a Leader. We hear your call but move slowly in your direction. We turn your promises into an excuse to rush past others. We wage war and make harsh choices, hoping they will turn to good. Forgive us. Open our eyes to all that is possible, so that the dawning of your light may lead us into a new morning of peace. Amen.

Song: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn” SNC 91, WR 160

Third Sunday of Advent

Joy

[Start the service with the first six daily candles already lit.]

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 65:17-25

Candle Lighting

A new time is coming: shout for joy! In a world that seeks pleasure in the abundance of material possessions, we find our true joy in the promise of a path that connects us with God. We look forward to the coming of our Savior. Joy to the world is the message of this season!

Today we light the candles of hope and peace.

[Light two purple candles.]

And we light a candle of joy in the name of Joshua, who led the wandering Hebrews at last into the Promised Land, and was glad to say that he and his family would serve the Lord;

[Light the pink candle.]

For Elijah, who, even when he was threatened, was given confidence to proclaim the true and faithful word, and is celebrated with Moses and Jesus.

[Light an additional daily candle after this and the remaining sections.]

For Esther, who gained peace and security for her people, who still feast with joy in her memory.

For Ruth, Boaz, and Obed, who found welcome for foreigners and a continuing place in the story of God’s people.

For Eli and Samuel, who were surprised by a new call and wise to answer in faith.

For Saul, the first king of the people, reckless but eager to lead the house of Israel.

For David, restless and sinful, but fueled by poetry and devotion and declared “a man after God’s heart.”

Song: “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” (st. 1-3)

Prayer

Source of all joy: lift our hearts by your presence. In the face of challenges, we shrink back. Before the strange and new, we look for the familiar and comfortable. Where we see imperfection, we are slow to celebrate devotion. Forgive us, and melt our hearts, so we may join the song of joy at the coming of Jesus. Amen.

Song: “Savior of the Nations, Come” PH 14, PsH 336, WR 168

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Love

[Start the service with the first twelve daily candles lit.]

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Candle Lighting

Jesus comes to show how much God loves the whole world. We pray that as we learn more and more to share Christ’s love with each other, we will be able to reach out in his name to love the whole world.

Today we light candles of hope, peace, and joy.

[Light two purple candles and the pink candle.]

And we light a candle of love, remembering Solomon, whose wisdom was once guided by a mother’s love.

[Light the last purple candle.]

In the name of Isaiah, whose visions soar on the promise of redeeming love.

[Light an additional daily candle after this and the remaining sections.]

For Jeremiah, whose words of lamentation were driven by love for the Lord’s people.

For Hosea, Joel, and Amos, who poured themselves out to inspire the people to dream new dreams and see fresh visions.

For Jonah, who fled from the God who abounds in steadfast love and is ready to relent from punishing.

For Simeon and Anna, who longed to see the salvation of the world in the face of love.

For Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were righteous and blameless, offering their whole future to God.

Song: “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” (st. 1-4)

Prayer

Dear God, we love you because we know that in Jesus you loved us first. As we light these candles, help us love each other more and more, and help us to share your love with the whole world. Amen.

Christmas Eve

[Start the service with all the pink and purple candles and all but three of the daily candles lit.]

Scripture Reading: John 1:1-18

Candle Lighting

Out of darkness, light shines. Jesus Christ is born, and his light is stronger than all evil and hatred in the world. Tonight we light a candle for Caesar Augustus and King Herod, whose lack of faith helped to lead the world to its new light.

[Light an additional daily candle after this and the remaining sections.]

For Joseph and Mary, who believed God’s promises and walked in humility and wonder.

For John the Baptist, who boldly proclaimed the coming of the One who is the Light of the world.

And now, at last, we light the Christ candle, because Jesus, the light of the world, is born! We remember that Jesus brings hope, peace, joy, and love, now and forever, and that he will come again to call us to share the full glory of the kingdom of God.

[Light the Christ candle.]

Song: “Joy to the World” CH 270, PH 40, PsH 337, SFL 137, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179

Prayer

Dear God, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to this world, and for promising victory over death and evil. Fill us with joy at his coming, and keep us faithful to him against every evil power, so that we may be light for the world in his name. Amen.

Excerpts

Service Suggestions

  • Rather than starting each service with the previous week’s candles already lit, consider relighting each day’s candle every Sunday. This takes time, but it allows the sense of “slowing down” to build cumulatively through the season. You can also affect the rhythm of the season by tying the process of decorating the sanctuary to these readings, explaining the symbolism along the way. An example of this is included in the reading about Eve and Adam.
  • We used a variety of shapes and sizes of white candles clustered around our familiar Advent wreath, but the candles could also be of uniform size or of other colors. Be certain that they are large enough to last through all your worship services, or that you have replacements. Also be sure that they are placed within easy reach of the people lighting them and in view of the congregation (without posing a fire hazard). This takes a little more thought than it might seem!
  • Make sure readers speak clearly and audibly. If you have space in your worship bulletins or projections, consider printing the readings.
  • Be certain that readers and candle lighters understand their instructions precisely. A walk-through rehearsal is helpful.
  • This practice could also be adapted for home use, lighting just one candle for each day.

Additional Names

  • For Enoch, who walked in such faith that his end is known only to God.
  • For Methuselah, who lived before God longer than any other person.
  • For Deborah and Gideon and other prophets and judges who remained faithful to God, obeying him in the face of opposition.