Use it or lose it!—On accidentally lighting the Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
READINGS: Job 26:10

He [God] has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness.

Life is a Circle by Black Elk (1863-1950)

Everything the power of the world does,
is done in a circle.
The sky is round
and I have heard that the earth
is round like a ball,
and so are all the stars.
The wind in its’ greatest power whirls.
Birds make their nests in circles; 
for their’s is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and
goes down again in a circle.
The moon does the same
and both are round.
Even the seasons form a great circle
in their changing
and always come back
to where they were.
The life of a man is a circle,
from childhood to childhood.
and so it is with everything
where power moves.

Welch's book with his own drawing of an Enso 
“I Saw Myself” by Lew Welch (from "Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971", City Lights Books, 2012)

I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a

bell does


Five years ago the day after the first Sunday in Advent there was a concert of contemporary electronica in the church which I very much enjoyed. It was a splendid evening of music by artists from the Sonic Pieces label and included Erik K Skodvin (promoting his new CD of the time "Flare", Simon Scott (promoting his yet to be released CD "Below Sea Level) and Ryan Teague with Sonic Pieces DJ from Berlin. Below are two links to pieces from Skodvin and Scott's music from those CDs:

To heighten the ambiance they turned off the lights, lit dozens of night-lights and placed them around the church. However, they also lit the candles on the Advent Wreath. Fortunately, I came back into the church only a minute or so after this had happened and was able to put them out with out them burning down more than fraction — remember we have to keep this wreath burning over five weeks!

At the time quietly (but I’ll admit a little bit irritatedly) I said to them something along the lines of, “Look, don’t worry, you haven’t committed some great metaphysical religious sin, there is nothing intrinsically religious or spiritual for us about these candles but they do have to last us until Christmas Day — please ask permission first before you light something that is obviously more than just a bunch of candles to be lit willy-nilly.” Note my use of the word “obviously” — I’ll return to this in a moment.

Genuine apologies were proffered, no harm was done and we moved on with goodwill to all. I like the Sonic Pieces bunch of musicians very much.

But, the incident kept coming back into my mind because a significant detail about which I haven’t yet told you. Although they lit the four outside candles, they did not lit the middle one. Now why was that? After all a mass candle-lighting had just taken place so it wasn’t as if they were holding back on the candle lighting front — but here was this one single unlit candle in the church — one clearly left deliberately unlit. It suggested that the concert organisers did not see the Advent Wreath as just a bunch of candles to be lit willy-nilly as I had first supposed. Lighting the outside ones may have seemed OK to them but that big white one in the middle, hmmm, that seemed to have shouted out to them in some way — “Don’t even think about, guys.” But what was — is — the voice they heard and what gave — gives — it authority such that they were minded to listen to it? This, for me, is the interesting question arising out of this little incident. I don’t know what their answer would be and, alas, it’s too late to ask them now. But, today, let’s think through some ways it might be answered.

Were we in a conventional Christian context (which we are not, of course) we might be tempted to begin by rehearsing the basic symbolism of the Advent Wreath in that context, pointing out that the successive lighting of the candles — an accumulation of light if you like — is an expression of the expectation of the birth of the Christ-child who is understood by the faithful Christian to be in some way ‘the light of the world’ — Emmanuel, God with us. The final central candle, lit only on Christmas Day, stands for this light of the world. The circular form of the wreath is a gesture towards ideas concerning God’s eternity and unity and the fact that it is made of evergreens gestures towards the idea of everlasting life.

So, one answer that might be attempted in many (most?) orthodox Christian settings — is to make some kind of metaphysical claim that the Advent Wreath is a sign and symbol of a really-real essential and eternal world (God’s) that grounds our own (which gives it meaning and worth etc.) and we may then to go and say that the concert organisers, even though they did not fully understand what was going on, caught a glimpse of this world beyond — they recognised, albeit through a glass darkly, an underlying ‘truth’ expressed by the central candle, the Christ-candle, the candle that is to be the light of the world for which we await — they saw that the central candle was ontologically special or sacred — special and scared in its very being.

Put together this Christian explanation makes a tacet claim is being made that, as a symbol, the Advent Wreath can somehow apply itself and be meaningfully independent of any human passing interpretation and that this independent meaning is what the concert organisers saw — or so we might be tempted to say.

But are we right to think that they caught a glimpse of an underlying truth or real world because of the Advent Wreath’s ability to apply itself independently of any human interpretation? Lovely and comforting though the idea might be I think I have to answer no. Why?

Well, the way we read and understand signposts (and our circular Advent Wreath is, as we shall see, a kind of signpost) is, as James C. Edwards points out, ‘so familiar to us that it is only in unusual cases that we have to ponder our ability to do this [reading].’ Generally this pondering only occurs when something goes wrong or, as we say, a ‘mistake’ is made, such as the one made by the concert organisers. Edwards goes on to observe that this ability to read signposts and spot what we call a ‘mistake’ is:

‘a function of our training and of our innate ability to be properly trained, not of the “intrinsic” clarity of the sign-post per-se. The search for a self-applying formula — one whose intrinsic meaning is independent of a conventional, public practice of training and employment — is a paper chase that leads nowhere. There are no “intrinsically unambiguous” signposts’ (The Authority of Language, University of South Florida Press, 1990, p. 163)

This helps us understand there is no single, intrinsically unambiguous understanding of the Advent Wreath or any other symbol. For us the meaning of this signpost is wholly connected with particular circumstances which say to us ‘carry on’ in this, rather than that, manner (or direction) — i.e. in an ‘Adventy’ or ‘Christmassy’ way rather than, say, a ‘Harvesty’ or ‘Eastery’ way. Its meaning is not dependent upon a world unseen but simply upon our particular community’s consistent practice of application of an evergreen circle with five candles burnt in a certain order and colour which is tied to a specific set of stories and which we use to measure our journey through a particular season — which says to us, week by week, ‘carry on’ in *this* way. **In other words understanding is application**.

OK, but what about the fact that the central candle wasn’t lit by the concert organisers?

Well, it is important to remember that for virtually the whole of human culture/s there exists a consistent practice of application of circular forms to highlight, gather together, point to or focus upon some thing or activity that we consider to be important, significant, meaningful. (I leave aside the interesting question about whether this picture which holds us captive is an always healthy and helpful one . . .)

The Advent Wreath repeats this use of the circle but think, too, for example, of speed-limit road signs or of circles spray-painted on the road to mark pot-holes to be repaired, the circus ring, the Colosseum or the massive stone circles of the megalithic period — think, too, of Job, Black Elk, and Lew Welch’s circles (his ring of bone and the enso on the cover of his book). This consistent practice of application of circles causes a ‘voice’ to shout out to us to look for something significant and it is an authoritative voice for us because we have been properly trained to recognise this use of circles; it does not shout out at us because there exists an intrinsic meaning of a circle or, in our case, an Advent Wreath.  Neither does it shout out with the voice of God for this voice is very human indeed.

It seems to me that the Advent Wreath was recognised by the concert organisers as an important sign simply because of its clear circular form and this allowed it to be read as meaning something like: the middle-candle is important (though important for what reason we don’t know) so don’t light that, but the ones around the edge surely won’t be so important so, yes, I think it’s OK to light them.

What we are standing before here is a recognition that what we commonly call understanding is born, in the first case, not of  abstract, rational thinking, but of doing. To understand the Advent Wreath (as an Advent Wreath and not simply a circle of candles) is to DO the Advent Wreath — its meaning is wrapped up wholly in this doing. The concert organisers clearly had no training in this kind of doing but they did have, as we also have, a training in the use of circles. What they did was a mistake that should have been challenged (as I did). But as we, rightly, might chose to correct that mistake we shouldn’t then go on to see their actions as being some kind of deep ontological kind that struck at the heart of our community’s very being but simply a timely reminder to us that meaning is use. For this reminder we should thank them, really thank them.

It helps us remember that it is never possible to rely on even our community’s greatest, most powerful, beautiful and loved symbols to carry before us what we might be tempted to call eternal unambiguous wisdom and meaning before us safely into the future so that those who follow us can, without any work or doing of their own, live a life of shared faith as we try to live a life of shared faith. (In passing, but very, very importantly, this is true of things like democracy.)

If we truly value aspects of the Christian tradition — however we value and have faith in them, and whether we live them with metaphysical belief or without (as I now live) — we must assuredly LIVE them.

As the old saying has it: “use it or lose it.”