Getting to light the Advent wreath during the service was always a highlight of the Christmas season. Advent was the only time when a candle saw the light of day in Monroe United Brethren Church, and it had four! (Well five when the big white one was placed in the middle of the Advent wreath.) I was the oldest in my family, so I got to carry the candle lighter down the aisle, a sibling on each flank, during the opening hymn to light the Advent wreath. There was always a lot of anxiety involved with the task. It was important to walk slowly, to hold the candle lighter steady, and most importantly to light the correct candles! I never got the privilege of lighting all the candles. Such tasks were reserved for the pastor’s children, but participating at all was a great honor for a young boy.
Not all the kids in the congregation were able to rise to the occasion. I remember one such time when a young comrade took up the task of lighting the Advent wreath, but mistakenly lit all the candles! It was only the third Sunday in Advent, so one candle was supposed to be left unlit. The whole congregation watched in horror as he preceded to light the fourth candle a week early, rendering it ruined and no longer white-wick new. The poor preacher was forced to execute a maneuver traditionally reserved for the theatre and magic shows; quickly licking his fingers, he pinched out the flame of the fourth candle, wincing in pain.
Of course, thinking back on it now, the horror we experienced that day was nothing compared to the horrors that the Israelite people experienced during their years of exile. The stories of exile still ring loudly in my ears, even to this day. Men thrown into a fiery furnace or a lions den because they refused to do things that were contrary to their convictions. And those men were lucky because they served in the court of the king. The stories of the everyday Israelites in exile will forever be lost to history.
And to think, the story of Advent is the story of those people. Waiting for their William Wallace, the person they called “the Messiah” to come and save them. The Messiah was a guy we didn’t talk much about in church. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to put everything together. The Messiah was the person that God promised would come to save the Jewish people. Their prophets talked about him, their poetry talked about him, they couldn’t get enough of him. He was supposed to be their liberator, just like Moses liberated them from their first exile in Egypt, but I learned there was more: The Messiah was also supposed to be a descended of the great Israelite king, David. The shepherd boy who killed Goliath and murdered his mistress’ husband. Israel’s prophets talked about how a new king would rise from the roots of the kings of old. That the Spirit of the Lord would be with him, and he would lead Israel back to the times when the promised land flowed with milk and honey.
I can remember learning about that too, the promised land flowing with milk and honey. VeggieTales even sang a song about it. But it wasn’t until I got older that I understood the blessings of the promised land were from God. Sure, the land was fertile, but God was the giver and the grower. His faithfulness to Israel brought them blessings, even when they didn’t deserve it. Eventually the milk and honey dried up, because Israel forgot God, but the promise of the Messiah was a reminder that God never forgot Israel. Some day he would rise up his Spirit endowed, son of David to rescue Israel.
Here we were, fussing over a candle, when we were supposed to be waiting like the Israelites. Waiting, like them, for the Messiah to come. As it turns out, that is the story of Advent. Like the Israelites in exile, we are supposed to be waiting for the Messiah to come.
And the Messiah did come, and we celebrate his arrive at Christmas. (I guess Christmas isn’t about Jesus’ birthday, but the birth of the Messiah–but that’s a different story!) But then the Messiah left, and after he left his followers began to realize that he didn’t do all the things that Israel’s prophets promised he would do. At first, this confused them, but then they began to put the pieces together. Jesus had left, but he was coming back. He was going to finish what he started when he returned. Advent then also became a waiting game. We, like the Israelites in exile, are waiting for the Messiah to come. We wait to celebrate the Messiah’s birth–Christmas–but we also wait for the Messiah to return.
Israel’s story has became our story. We–the people of the God, the followers of Jesus–are now the ones in exile. Held up in little communities all over the world, awaiting our king’s return. I’ll never forget that Sunday when the preacher pinched out the mistakenly lit Advent candle. It brings me great joy, but I’ve come to understand that the story of Advent is more than candles and wreathes and purple and blue. It’s not just a story, or a memory; its our story, and our living memory. We are exiles, refugees, awaiting the return of our king and savior.