The candles in the Advent wreath symbolize expectation, and a growing excitement as the time of fulfillment draws nearer. The center candle represents Christ, the Light of the World. We light it on Christmas Eve in celebration of the joyful fulfillment of our Advent waiting. The outside candles represent those who have in one way or another waited and expected and hoped for the coming of Christ. We light one of these candles on each of the four Sundays of Advent until all of them are burning together. The light they give is a symbol of our hope: it grows ever brighter as the coming of Christ draws near.
We light our first candle for Simeon and Anna, those two faithful servants of God who have waited their long lives for the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption. They keep watching and hoping and praying—indeed, Anna never even leaves the temple, but worships there night and day. Their candle burns the longest, from the first Sunday of Advent until Christmas. By the time all is said and done it is nearly burned away, much like Simeon and Anna themselves, stooped with age after waiting so long for the consolation of Israel.
We also light a candle for Mary and Joseph, the frightened teenagers who can’t help but wonder just how they got into the situation they find themselves in, stuck in a strange town with a baby due any minute and the ink still wet on their marriage license. They’ve got all the weight of public opinion against them and nothing on their side but a few dreams and the visit of some character claiming to be an angel. Their candle flickers as they wait nervously and eagerly for the birth of their son. The candle flickers, but it stays lit.
We light our next candle for the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. They pace back and forth, drink black coffee out of a thermos, play another hand of gin rummy—whatever they can do to stave off sleep and slog through another interminable night of watching their sheep. They aren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen; they’re just doing a thankless job as faithfully as they know how, trying to earn an honest buck to support their families. But even if no one in the sleepy town down below knows or cares about their nightly vigil, it has not gone entirely unnoticed. God recognizes simple faithfulness, even when it involves duties we might consider insignificant. Tonight God rewards the shepherds’ faithfulness in a marvelous and wholly unexpected way: God invites them to visit God’s Son on his first night in the world.
Finally, let us light the fourth candle for ourselves, for we too are part of the story of Advent. Like Simeon, Anna, Mary, and Joseph, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. Like the shepherds, God calls us to keep watch in faithfulness and perseverance. After all, Advent is not merely about the birth of Christ; it is also about the sure hope of his coming again. Just as Jesus came as an infant some 2,000 years ago, he will return as the universal Lord at the culmination of history. We light our candles, dispelling the darkness and looking forward with hope to the day when “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!