Eileen stopped by church the other day. She arrived just in time for Chapel Time at Mother’s Day Out, so I invited her to join us. Afterall, I figured, its not often that three- and four-year-olds get to meet an angel.
In the interest of transparency, I better stop there and clear things up. While Eileen is indeed an angel, she was not sent from heaven but from the bargain rack at Target. Secondly, Eileen didn’t just happen by the church, I brought her with me. Finally, Eileen received her name during Chapel Time when it became apparent that bargain-rack angels from Target can’t stand up straight.
Propped up against the communion chalice, she leaned a bit to the left, not unlike many Presbyterians. When I placed her in front of the cross, she bowed toward the children in a near-perfect curtsy. Hence the name “Eileen.” She brought with her tidings of comfort and joy as she shares the story of Jesus’ birth to ears more accustomed to the grinding gears of our cultural Christmas machine.
Here’s the thing, however: she stuck around for worship on Sunday. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but she was there, perched next to the Sunday flowers. Watching. Waiting. And, hopefully, rejoicing. Eileen does not talk much, but she is our angel of joy.
We need that joy this Advent, especially as we cross the halfway mark toward Christmas morning. Eileen will be especially useful as we light the rosy pink “joy” candle on the third Sunday of Advent. This Sunday is called “Guadete Sunday,” based on the Latin word “rejoice.” We are summoned to rejoice with Mary as she contemplates her pregnancy, and by Paul’s injunctions to rejoice always.
The children are always fascinated with the rose candle. Our candle is a particularly vibrant shade of pink, which makes it stand out from her purple siblings. It’s so pink that it could be called the Barbie candle, especially among children whose liturgical vocabularies are still a work in process. They giggle and squeal as we light the pink candle, which to me becomes the sound of a weary world rejoicing.
Let them giggle. We need laughter, particularly in a season of the year where daylight is short, and the wind is cold. I chuckled a bit the other night as my dog took me on a walk. The wind was pummeling the inflatable decorations in our neighbor’s yard. At first glance, it looked like Santa and Frosty were fighting. It seemed as if Frosty had landed a strong uppercut to the jolly elf and was prevailing over him.
But then I realized they were not fighting. Both were facing into the wind, which was forcing them to retreat. What a symbol of our present time, I thought. “Here we are,” I reflected, “in a world that is at war, a world still reeling from the trauma of the pandemic, a world where our politics are broken.” These are the forces blowing around us which make it hard to rejoice.
“O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,” wrote Edmund Sears in 1849. The carol reminds us of both the difficulty and imperative of rejoicing. This is why we need to the Barbie candle, or whatever you call it. We need the ability to laugh and sing of the impossibilities of God’s grace.
When life’s crushing load bends us backward, we need reminders of the call to rejoice. Churches in Bethlehem have cancelled Christmas worship this year, for obvious reasons. A Lutheran church in Bethlehem made headlines last week by placing a symbolic baby Jesus among debris and rubble created by bombs. Likewise, Jews in Jerusalem are lighting the Menorah surrounded by photos of hostages. In the United States, younger voters express concerns that the post-pandemic economy is doing little to offset the impact of inflation. Meanwhile, incidents of hate acts toward Jews in the United States have increased by at least 400%.
These are the realities we face—tensions between countries, communities, churches, and families. Our own congregations struggle with political and theological divisions which do little to assuage the culture’s belief that Christians are primarily a harsh, judgmental, and ungraceful people. These are the realities which make us wonder, “Exactly how does a weary world rejoice?”
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul speaks of the power of Christian testimony as the foundation for our rejoicing. This is not merely a cup half empty approach to life. He’s Paul the Apostle, not Paul the motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river. He grounds expressions of joy in the experience of gratitude for God’s provision received even in the midst of grief.
He offers the assurance the Thessalonians are desperate to hear. It’s more than a smiley face emoji tacked the end of a text, and much more than some overly sweetened word of Christmas cheer. Paul binds the broken hearts of the Thessalonians by recalling the continuing presence of Christ. It is exactly what that community needed, and it is exactly the message we need today.
His instructions are simple. He offers a chain of verbs that profoundly witness to the promises of God: yet remain a profound testimony to the promises of Christ: rejoice, pray, give thanks, test, hold fast. These are the candles which light our paths through dark December days.
We light the pink candle at the darkest time of the year, a reminder of the awkward if hard to believe promise that God is with us. Our testimony reflects our witness that things shall not always be as they seem. Rejoice, we are told. Rejoice, because the candle burns bright against the backdrop of a weary world.
“Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ will come again,” we say. Perhaps even by the light of the Barbie candle.
(A version of this column appears in this week’s The Immediate Word, at www.sermonsuite.com)
Rev. Dr. Christopher Keating
Pastor, Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church
Chaplain, St Louis County Police, West County Precinct