Wednesday, December 16, 2009

11 Days to Christmas

It's the candles I remember. It would always be four of them. Faith. Joy. Love. Peace. One by one, they'd be lit each week on the four Sundays preceding Christmas. It wasn't some elaborate ritual involving smells, bells and incense.

Someone would walk up the aisle -- either alone or with their family -- light one candle, read a passage from the Bible, say something about the theme for the week and pray. The service would then continue as normal except for the carols that were always a December highlight.

This was how my church would celebrate Advent, the period just before Christmas. The candles were a reminder of Christ being the light of the world, and the four themes emphasised the Christmas message.

The candlelighting tradition during Advent may not have stood the test of time in my church, and may not have been practised in other churches I have attended.

However, the simple ceremony has had a huge impact on me, and in my understanding of things divine. Faith, joy, peace and love no longer remained words that I needed to abide by but as things I ought to do or better still, integrate them in my worldview.

Faith. Joy. Love. Peace.

The certitudes of childhood, however, have a strange way of coming full circle. We run away from them as we try to demonstrate their irrelevance. We falter on the way not because we are hesitant about taking that path but we discover their necessity, and our own inability to follow.

We soon find out that faith, hope love, joy or peace are not that hard to attain but that we just don't try hard enough. Something always stops. Something prevents. Something holds us back. Something that makes us less of who we are and what we want to be.

St. Paul uses the word 'hamartia' to describe that state of missing the mark of being what we ought to be, the tragic flaw that prevents human beings from being the civilising force they were meant to be.

It becomes clear that what may seem like an individual struggle is not really a battle we wage alone. It is a pain we share with the rest of the world and the debris of that struggle is a reality we wish we could avoid at any cost.

No wonder, the birth of that little baby in an obscure town of Bethlehem becomes a cause for hope, reason for joy, rationale for faith and inspiration for love. The only problem is, that road leads to the cross, to pain and to sacrifice.

There may have been resurrection somewhere in the story, but death always precedes resurrection. We'd rather skip the messy bits but we realise it's a package deal and we can't have one without the other.

The advent candles might be missing in my church this year, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is whether or not faith, hope, joy, love or peace are burning in our hearts.

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