"Mommy, why do we light these candles anyway?" This from my probing seven year old. It is a valid question as we prepare our home for the advent season. It wasn't too long ago that I began asking this same type of question during this most wonderful time of the year. Back then I didn't think much about advent, let alone really know what it meant. The month of December for me was the typical pulling out of Christmas decorations, writing a hundred Christmas cards, baking, shopping and attending a slew of holiday parties. It was all exhaustingly fun. That is until, like my son, I began asking myself, "why am I doing all this anyway?". "For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called 'the holiday season' turns out to be the most stressful time of the year. It is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent. One minute we glow at the thought of getting together with our family and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely. Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation with despair. We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end, all the bustle leaves us frustrated and drained." (Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, introduction) Not exactly the atmosphere of holiday cheer.
Just as the Christ candle in the advent wreath signifies the light of God coming into the world through his son Jesus, so too does His light shine to reveal understanding when we stand aside and allow the Holy Spirit to teach.
Education is formation. The formation of our mind, heart and soul is taking place through our education. Charlotte Mason states that "Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline and a Life". In other words, our atmosphere forms us, our discipline forms us--they form the one life we live out in this world. One of the most formative experiences that shapes the rhythm, order, and meaning to life is the calendar. Think about it, how we mark time says a lot about what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world around us. How we tell time is in itself a formative educational experience. It roots us in a particular narrative. The holidays that make up our calendar reinforce reality through the atmosphere of celebrations, festivals, parades, and tributes. Think for just a moment about our American calendar. What we choose to observe says a lot about what we value: President’s Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving. Together they reinforce a specific narrative about who we are and our place in the world.
Since her inception, the church has been telling time in her own unique way. The liturgical calendar moves in and out of the world around us creating an atmosphere of 'holy days' or holidays. It grounds us in God’s story and it is the lens through which we read and interpret the history of the world. In particular, the church's way of telling time begins with Advent, a period of longing, anticipation, and hope. It is a time that we recall the prophets' patience for the long-awaited King. It is the recovery of how to live in a world of impatience as a patient people awaiting the second adventus. But just how do we do this in the midst of all the hustle and bustle and despair?
We create an atmosphere that reflects the lighted candles of the advent wreath: hope, peace, love and joy. We slowly read the scriptures on which to meditate these godly virtues. We read noble stories from Dickens and sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We spend balanced time with loved ones and serve those in need. We feast on such things and bear witness to how our atmosphere has formed us: by how we live out our lives with the same hope, peace, love and joy. "Mommy, why do we light these candles anyway?" We light them for the atmosphere of advent.