The second most popular Advent question asked in the United Methodist Churches I’ve served is “Why is there one pink candle on the Advent wreath?” (THE most popular question has of course been “When can we start singing Christmas carols?”)
The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent because since the 10th century, that day has been recognized by the catholic church as Gaudete, or Joy, Sunday. (See one history here.) As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a forty-day fast. The weeks prior to Christmas were a season of penitence, much in the way that Lent functions in relation to Easter. One can see how the lectionary texts in the first couple weeks of Advent issue calls to reflection and penitence: “The Kingdom is at hand! Know how to read the signs! Repent!” My Greek Orthodox friends observe two fasts prior to and during Advent, increasing in severity and restriction, as a way of preparing for the coming of Christ. They understand that preparation for the coming of Christ entails self-examination and sacrifice.
In faith traditions where the penitential nature of Advent is observed, the third Sunday of Advent is an occasion which ensures that the joy of Christ’s first and second comings is made clear. The texts for that day bring that joy and anticipation to the forefront of the church’s worship. The prophet Zephaniah assures us that God will “save the lame and gather the outcast” as well as “deal with their oppressors.” Joy! Paul exhorts the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Joy! And Luke reports that upon hearing John the Baptist’s message were “filled with expectation.” Joy, joy, joy all over the place!
The pink candle has been a witness to me in recent years. In my Protestant upbringing, December worship wasn’t much more than a prelude to the nativity. It wasn’t until my preaching years that the pink candle began to inform my interpretation of the texts on the first and second Sundays in Advent. I’ve been striking more penitential tones in recent Advents, knowing that Gaudete Sunday is ahead, waiting to help us understand what we are preparing for. This Sunday, our congregation will pull out all the stops during our worship services. A small ensemble of church members who are singers and instrumentalists have been practicing to lead our congregation through some intentionally upbeat music. Some of our small children will be playing “Ode to Joy” on the piano. We intend to have a longer time for the passing of the peace, which (gasp!) may even make worship run past its “usual” ending time.
Of course, each Sunday reminds us of the joy of the resurrection, and Gaudete Sunday is not meant to manufacture a cheap joy through emotional manipulation of worshippers. What I hope our celebration will do is focus our attention on the joy of the eschaton, the redemption of all creation, the glorious telos that the Church anticipates and waits for, but forgets to talk about in the waiting. I pray that our worship will form people for Advents to come, so that their joy is not contained in packages with pretty bows but in the uncontainable God, who is, was, and is to come. Joy!