I guess I am the last person to find out about The Elf on the Shelf. I’m not quite sure how I missed it. Maybe because my kids are grown? Although I still frequent the card shops that litter them around the store. I just didn’t see it as anything other than a cute, Christmassy decoration. Little did I know the magnitude of its purpose and meaning, which I shall try to paraphrase. It’s like this little guy’s job is to live in a household or a classroom as be a hotline to Santa, reporting in on a daily basis about the behavior of the community he lives in. Seems Santa needs some help – something that can be seen and, unlike previous generations who were plagued by the thought of Santa’s unrestricted observations, not left to the imagination. His level of frustration results from being sent away from the North Pole where all the other elves get to make toys and is manifested in little impish acts which are observed by multitudes of children each morning. I am not part of this tradition so I have some questions that may seem to have obvious answers. I mean, if the elf is supposed to elicit good behavior in children, how do you explain the elf’s indiscretions? And, why is good behavior only important right before Christmas? No one notices the other 11 months? Obviously there is a piece of the lore that I missed…
As I pondered this phenomena, it occurred to me that in like manner there are traditions in the church that hold deeper meanings that aren’t readily understood. The advent wreath comes to mind. Now, it’s pretty common knowledge amongst Christians that the wreath holds four candles that surround one large white candle. The four candles can be red …or purple…or blue and the candle for the third week can be pink or rose…or it can be purple or blue or red. Each candle is representative of a specific word or thought, depending on the denomination presenting the information. They might be prophecy, Bethlehem, shepherd or angel. Or they might be hope, preparation, joy, and love. The second candle might also be called the peace candle. The center candle is universally thought of as the Christ candle and is always white. The wreath itself is a symbol of God’s all encompassing love that has no beginning and no end. Although there is no consensus on whether this tradition came before or after the beginning of Christianity, some speculate a wreath was decorated with candles during the dark of winter in pre-Christian Germany as a symbol of hope and encouragement that spring would certainly come. With the array of details surrounding the Advent wreath, it’s no wonder so many of us simply sit back and watch each week as a candle is lit, recognizing that the countdown to Christmas is well on it’s way. By the time the fourth candle is lit, many of us are in a mild state of apoplexy hoping that we will still have time to accomplish the myriad of things we feel the need to complete before the Big Day.
But, what if we look at the wreath as more that a seasonal calendar? What if we ponder and reflect on the meaning behind the candle of the week and carry that meaning into the world as we go about our business? Instead of a countdown, the wreath might become a reminder of the message Christ brought to us.
Let’s call the first candle “hope”. Hope is an amazing thing! It’s the realization that there is something to be learned in the midst of the worst life can throw at us. It’s seeing the humor in a distressing situation. Hope is optimism, even when something is as bleak as a cold winter night. It’s recognizing goodness in people, even when those people seem to be the reason for our stress. Although, sometimes our perception of hope needs help. In those moments it helps to consciously identify gratitude in and through and about the thing that is making life difficult. Maybe it’s cold outside, but it makes the cocoa taste just that much better. Maybe a loved one lives far, far away, but you live in the era of cell phones and emails. Maybe the illness doesn’t have a good prognosis, but you find the people around you are bringing meals and love into your home. Maybe the checkout line is long and slow, but you have time to breathe deep and relax while you wait for your turn. Hope can change anxiety and stress into the realization that life might suck at the moment, but there is something amazing just around the corner.
The peace candle is lit on the second week. There is an amazing song played primarily during the holiday season. The first lines take us from world peace to inner peace. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me; let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.” What if we felt that kind of peace inside of us? The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV) Okay, when we turn this one inside out, we find encouragement not to stress over a given situation, to chat about it with God through prayer, remembering to find that nugget of gratitude. It’s like we look back to the hope candle and forward to the Christ candle to find that place where we experience peace. Then, when we really, truly feel peace, we can’t help but interact with others without defenses, power grabs, criticisms, judgment, or any of the other things that work against getting along. And…if we can find that sense of peace as we interact in our homes, our work, and our neighborhoods, maybe others will feel it and share it leading to that elusive peace on earth.
Week three seems pretty obvious when as we come off of weeks one and two. How could we feel anything but joy when we realize hope and peace are possible? Romans 15:13 states, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (NRSV) Interesting how these three words – hope, peace and joy – keep intertwining in and through and around Christ, who came to us as God incarnate.
It’s fitting that the last candle on the wreath is “love”. Think about it. The first letter to the Corinthians states, ““Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (12: 4-8) This passage includes all of the candles on the wreath! Hope, peace, joy and love!
The final candle is found in the center of the wreath. Unlike the variety of colors and words assigned to the other four candles, this is always called the Christ candle and is always white. Christ is at the center of hope, peace, joy and love and hope, peace, joy and love all point to Christ. Imagine it as if Christ sparks energy and light into all of the other candles and they in turn build on that energy as it returns back toward Christ. It’s like breathing in and out or the ocean’s rhythms through its ebbs and tides. Christ at the center, humanity emulating Christ…back and forth until God’s will is achieved on earth as it is in heaven.
A simple wreath with a few candles guides us through the season of Advent, reminding us of what and who is important as we progress toward Christmas day. Take time each week to focus on the candle making it your mantra as you go about your business, your shopping, at home, at celebrations and in your quiet meditations.