This Sunday we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, and we leave the other three candles unlit. As I child it always bothered me that the candles burned so unevenly – the last purple candle hardly got warm before Christmas came. I suggested to my parents that we could rotate which candles were lit so they would burn more evenly. I also pondered why no one made Advent candles in a series of sizes to compensate for the unevenness of the season. Advent gives a curious little boy many dark evenings on which to think these thoughts.
Now I realize that the little wreath seemed strange because I was spending too much time thinking about the wreath. The wreath all by itself does not make much sense. Of course the wreath would look much more balanced if you lit all four candles at once, and let them all burn together, but then it would not have any meaning, it would only be a candle holder. The wreath makes sense if you know that it points towards Christmas, and so it is Christmas that gives the wreath meaning and purpose. You cannot light all the candles at once, because each one marks a Sunday of Advent, patiently keeping time until the coming of the Lord.
Human life is like the Advent wreath – it has a certain pattern to it, and it is meant to lead in a certain direction. That pattern is made by lighting some candles, and not others, in the sense that you have to follow some paths, and leave others unexplored. You have to keep some friends, and not others. You have to make some choices, and not others.
This is easy to see, but it is difficult to do, because everything seems very appealing. This truth became very real for me when I was discerning priesthood. I could not be a priest and also be married, I could not light both candles. Some people said this was not fair, and said the Church should allow me to light them both if I wanted to. I never liked that answer because it seemed hollow to me.
The people in life who got the farthest always seem to be the ones who choose a single direction and stick with it. I recently attended the funeral of Monsignor Bill Lyons, a priest who had been ordained in 1956. He invested all his time and energy in priesthood, and if mortality had not intervened he would still be hearing confessions and celebrating Mass today.
I have not celebrated too many funerals for a people who seemed to have tried to light all their candles. These people have a tendency not to wind up in Church, for a very simple reason. Pretty quickly, generally by the time of the second marriage, they had already put themselves on a path that did not run parallel with the Church. When we try to do everything, light every candle, life ceases to have any pattern. It no longer points to anything outside of yourself, it no longer has any meaning.
It make me sad to see that our commercial world is multiplying options and encouraging us to choose as many things as possible. There are so many more candles, tall, short, colored, scented, that can all be bought and for a fraction of what they used to cost. We have a million options at our fingertips, and we are encouraged to whatever we want. Life is not richer for being filled up, as Monsignor Lyons points out. Life is made richer by becoming deeper.
Wisdom is the art of discerning which paths to follow, and which ones to avoid. The patient candles on the advent wreath points us in the right direction, towards the manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was poor, Jesus was cold, Jesus was unnoticed by the whole world, except by His parents. Right there He teaches us to pass by the money and possessions, to ignore our own comfort, to not look for attention. We should allow our candle to be lit by Christ, and the candle we should light first is the one that burns for our family. The other things need to wait, so we can start with the people God has put closest to us.
Blessed Advent journeys +