Dec 4, 2014

Unsettling Asymmetry of the Advent Wreath

By Heather Judd

Churches are places of symmetry. In traditional architecture, the nave, the altar, and the cross all embody beauty through symmetrical perfection.

The Advent wreath is just the opposite. It begins well but ends, quite frankly, lopsided.

I don’t think I actually have OCD, but I do like things “just so.” Pictures should hang straight and books stand at attention on the edges of the shelves. In my classroom, I begin to feel uneasy toward the end of an antsy day when all my students have scooted their desks to sit at odd angles. Thus, the Advent wreath has always caused me perturbation.

The first week is not so bad, as the single candle shortens next to its three stately compatriots. If there’s a pink (er—“rose”) candle, it’s opposite the one in use this week anyway, so the whole thing still has a line of symmetry.

The second week, there is a subtle shifting. If I were on the Titanic, I would start to be uneasy.

The third week, my asymmetry-senses start tingling.

But by the fourth week, I begin to lose my grip. Not only is the whole wreath off-kilter by now, but in my church, the wreath, which has been used daily for school chapel services during the previous three weeks, is lit only on Sunday and Wednesday now that Christmas vacation has begun. And even if that were not the case, the fourth week of Advent is almost never a full week, so the fourth candle cannot possibly attain seven days’ worth of diminishment before the Christmas candle is added.

Now whenever I come to church in the next twelve days, I will eye Candle #1 warily to see if it will hold out until Epiphany, while simultaneously lamenting how much of Candle #4 will be wasted. Once or twice I may even have caught myself pondering what it would look like to create an Advent wreath with candles that start out at uneven heights calculated to end in perfect uniformity.

I might claim my concern is a longing for the perfection of the Edenic “very good” or the beauty of holiness prescribed in the Tabernacle and Temple. I might be right. But no matter how proper this longing may be, it is not my place to order the whole of the Church to my standards of uniformity. I in my little corner of time and space cannot possibly comprehend the proper proportions of God’s eternal pattern. This year, though, the Advent wreath gave me a new thought. What if, within all the ordered, stately, symmetrical beauty that God prescribes (Exodus 26-30) and that Church tradition has embraced, this small amount of Advent asymmetry is meant to draw my attention and cause me a smidge of unease?

Advent is the season of waiting. The readings remind us of the Old Testament saints who waited for the Messiah without knowing whether He would come in their lifetimes or centuries hence. They remind us, too, that we are waiting for our Christ to come again, and that we know not whether He will come this Advent or after generations of our children’s children have been laid to rest in the narrow chambers of their graves. What is certain is that some believers live far removed in time from the Lord’s comings while others live during the day of His visitation. For some the wait is long. For others it is short.  

Or as Jesus tells it in Matthew 20, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” We probably all remember the familiar story about how a group of men agreed to work for a denarius, and were later offended when other men received the same payment for only an hour’s labor. The master tells them, “Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”

I’d like things weighed out precisely: balanced, symmetrical, and just. I’d like to tell God exactly how much each of my fellow-workers deserves. I’d like to resize those “candles” who seem to have wasted three quarters of their lives. I’d like to calculate the whole of God’s doings according to my own timetables.

However, in His grace God pours more abundantly than I can weigh: cascading heaps of grace. He gives me a full day’s wage despite my own sloth. He claims me even in my prodigality. He is not slack in fulfilling His promises, but patiently awaits repentance.

The days are hastening swiftly toward the great Day of the Lord, yet God does not count time as we do. We may be the fourth candle before the final Advent of our Lord, but we may just as well be the first candle, our lives burning on in witness to millennia more of descendants. Knowing our place within the waiting is not our concern. Rather, our concern is to keep our wicks trimmed and our lights burning, not knowing when that day will come.

But when the Last Day does come, I suspect that all the asymmetry of uneven burning will prove but an illusion, a trick of time to be enfolded in the eternal fire of the I AM who speaks from the flame of the unconsumed bush (Exodus 3) and Who sees all with His eyes like a flame of fire (Revelation 1:14, et al.). In eternity, waiting is no more; all is fulfillment. There we shall know beauty and order beyond our earthly comprehension. There “night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun [or Advent candles], for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).


***

Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.  


6 comments:

  1. Very nice article, Heather! We're reusing our lopsided candles from last year so that they don't go to waste, and the fourth week candle from last year is the one we've been burning this week. I love your article because of how beautifully and articulately you turn our attention from the mundane to the profound. I expect I'll read this again sometime before Christmas comes.

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  2. In the Orthodox tradition we don't have an advent wreath or candles, but we do wait longingly for Christmas and have an Advent that is as long as Lent, 40 days. It's a time to remember how disordered humanity has been from Adam, and our own "wonkiness," if I may use a euphemistic word which the uneven candles bring to mine. We direly needed the Savior, and I thank you for using the Advent wreath to demonstrate that in a small way. A blessed Advent and Nativity to your family!

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  3. I seem to have spoken too soon - here is an example of how an Orthodox family does an Advent wreath! http://www.janegmeyer.com/blog/our-advent-wreath/

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    1. That's a beautiful wreath (and very California-looking, too).

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  4. You know, I have never been a big fan of Advent wreaths, and I think you've hit on the exact reason: they're not symmetrical. I have a great desire for symmetry, and the fact that there's only one pink candle and we don't have all the candles lit at the same time has always bugged me. Now I just need to ponder what this says about me...

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article!

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  5. Heather, I just love this post! Beautiful, true, enlightening, and very helpful - I absolutely share your sentiments. Thanks for taking the time to write and share it!

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