The curious incident of lighting the Advent Wreath in the night-time


Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The Pharisees then said to him, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going, but you do not know whence I come or whither I am going” (John 8:12-14).

From Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell Publshing, 1953 & 2001, p. 34e):

[Paragraph] 85. The rule stands there like a sign-post. Does the sign-post leave no doubt open about the way I have to go? Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country. But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one? — And if there were, not a single sign-post, but a chain of adjacent ones or of chalk marks on the ground — is there only one way of interpreting them? — So I can say, the sign-post does after all leave room for doubt. Or rather: it sometimes leaves room for doubt and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition, but an empirical one.

And some words on the above passage by James C. Edwards in “The Authority of Language” (University of South Florida Press, 1990, p. 163):

The way to read a standard signpost is so familiar to us that it is only in unusual cases that we have to ponder our ability to do so. But that is a function of our training and of our innate ability to be properly trained . . . not of the “intrinsic” clarity of a signpost 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 curious incident of lighting the Advent Wreath in the night-time

Eight years ago during Advent an evening concert was held here in the church where the organisers, in addition to heightening the ambience by turning off all the main lighting, also lit dozens of night-lights. I was very happy for them to do this as well as have them use the building for I like them as people I think their style of electronic ambient music suits this church setting particularly well.

However, that night, in addition to the many night lights they had also lit the candles on our Advent Wreath. Fortunately, I came back into the church only a minute or so after this had happened and so was able to put them out without them burning down more than fraction. At the time, quietly, but I’ll admit a bit irritatedly, I said to them something along the lines of, “Look, you haven’t committed some great metaphysical religious sin, there is nothing intrinsically religious or spiritual for us about a candle it’s just that, dammit, they have to last until Christmas Day — please ask permission first before you light something that is obviously more than just a bunch of ordinary candles to be lit willy-nilly.” Apologies were proffered, no harm was done, we moved on and said no more about it and the concert was a great success.

But, there is still a significant detail about which I haven’t yet told you. Although they had lit the four outside candles of the Advent Wreath, they had chosen not to light 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! Yet here was this single unlit candle in the church — and, more to the point, one clearly left deliberately unlit. That it wasn’t lit suggests that the concert organisers did in fact intuit that the Advent Wreath wasn’t just a bunch of ordinary candles to be lit willy-nilly. For them lighting the outside ones may have been OK but, ooooh, that tall one in the middle seemed to have shouted out to them in some way “Don’t even think about it, folks!” But what was, is or might be the voice they heard at that moment which gave — gives — it authority such that they were minded to listen to it?

This, for me, is the interesting question that arose out of this little incident. Alas I never had the chance to ask them so today we’ll have to concentrate on how I and we think it might be answered.

One answer that might be attempted in many (most?) mainstream, 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 (giving it meaning and worth etc.) and then to go and say that the concert organisers, even though they did not fully understand what was going on, caught an actual glimpse of this actual other world beyond — they recognised, albeit through a glass darkly, an underlying ‘truth’ expressed by the central candle, the Christ-candle, the candle that will be lit on Christmas Day to represent the light of the world for which we now awaiting — that the candles (and especially the central candle) are in and of themselves special or sacred.

Again in the mainstream, orthodox Christian setting we might be tempted to continue by rehearsing the basic symbolism of the Advent Wreath, and to point out that the successive lighting of the candles over the four weeks of Advent — an accumulation of light if you like — is an expression of our expectation as we await the birth of the Christ-child who is understood by us to be in some way ‘the light of the world.’ The final central candle, lit only on Christmas Day, stands for this light of the world. Lastly we may add that the circular form of the wreath is a symbol of God's eternity and unity and the fact that it is made of evergreens is a symbol of the idea of enduring life.

When you put these two approaches together there seems to arise a tacit claim that, as a symbol, the Advent Wreath (or Jesus, pace our biblical reading) can somehow apply itself to us and be meaningfully “what it is” independent of any human interpretation and that this is what the concert organisers saw — or so we might be tempted to say.

But are we right to think that the concert organisers caught (or anyone else can catch) a glimpse of an underlying truth or really-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 the answer must be a resolute no. Why?

A slowly decomposing signpost in the fens
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 lighting of the Advent Wreath candles by the concert group. 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).

We need to be honest about this and see that the plain truth of the matter is that there is no single, intrinsically unambiguous understanding of the Advent Wreath, the person of Jesus (even when he calls himself the light of the world) or any other symbol. For us the meaning of this signpost (this Advent Wreath) is connected with particular circumstances which say to us ‘carry on’ in this rather than that fashion - i.e. carry on in an ‘Adventy’ or ‘Christmassy’ way rather than, say, a ‘Harvesty’ or ‘Eastery’ way. Its meaning is not dependent upon an unseen world behind our own but simply upon some Christian communities’ consistent practice of the application of an evergreen circle with five candles burnt in a certain order and tied to a specific set of stories by which we measure our journey through a particular season — which says to us, week by week, ‘carry on’ in this Adventy way. In other words understanding is application.

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

Well, it is important to remember that for virtually all human culture/s there exists a consistent practice of application of circular forms to highlight, gather together, point to or focus upon something or some activity we consider important, significant, meaningful.

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. This consistent practice of application of circles causes a ‘voice’ to shout out to us whenever we see one and then to look for something significant. It is an authoritative voice for us because we have been properly trained to recognise the general use of circles and not because there exists an intrinsic meaning of a circle or, in our case, an Advent Wreath. It seems to me, therefore, likely that the Advent Wreath was recognised by the concert organisers as an important sign simply because of its clear circular form but it’s inherent ambiguity allowed it to be read as meaning (perhaps) something like: the middle-candle is important (though important for what reason we don’t know) so we won’t light that, but the ones around the edge won’t be so important so it’s OK to light them especially because they could see that some of them had already been lit.

What this tells us is that what we commonly call understanding is born in the first case not out of thinking but of doing. To understand the Advent Wreath 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 all also have, a training in the use of circles. What they did was, for us a mistake — and for us it was a real mistake that should have been challenged (as I did) — but, again for us, we shouldn’t see it as a deep ontological mistake striking at the heart of our very being but simply as a timely reminder that meaning is use — and for this reminder we should thank them, really thank them. Consequently, following J. L. Austin, we may say that their actions were not so much wrong (in any absolute sense) but certainly infelicitous, unhappy.

This unhappiness I hope helps us remember that it is simply not possible to rely on even our community’s most powerful, beautiful and loved symbols to carry forward safely into the future what we might be tempted to call eternal unambiguous wisdom and meaning so that those who follow us can, without any work or doing of their own, live a similar life. And, as I conclude please be acutely aware that what is true of Advent Wreaths is also true of every symbol and practice we value highly — including, in these strange and darkening times of ours, the practice of democracy. The point is that whatever symbols and practices we value and have faith in — and whether we live them with traditional metaphysical beliefs or like me, without — must be LIVED. As the old saying has it: “use it or lose it.”

The Cambridge Unitarian Church this morning in the snow