God Doesn’t Care What Color Your Candles Are

An Advent reflection on the God of the midst and the mess


Author’s Note: It’s come to my attention that there are concerns that the content of this blog references conversations had in private spaces and closed groups. I’d like to clarify that all of the examples I reference I have heard expressed in public spaces. I respect the right of clergy and others to process frustrations in private. My issue is with what is expressed and implied in public debates. I’d also like to clarify that I recognize Advent rituals are important and meaningful for many people – including some who are deeply struggling. I simply believe that we need not “follow the rules” of Advent to the letter to find that meaning.

Can I confess something? Even though I love Christmas as much as the next person, the longer I spend in ministry, the more I come to dread the beginning of this season. Each year I find myself annoyed by the rants and complaints from some of my clergy colleagues about the need to preserve the sanctity of Advent.

In seminary, I relished the theological and liturgical intricacies of this holy season. I loved the deep meaning imbued in each part of Advent, each Sunday, each ritual with candles and scripture. I grasped firmly onto the adamant belief that Advent precedes Christmas and is an intentional season of waiting. I rolled my eyes at those outside of professional ministry who I thought “just didn’t get it” as they rushed into Christmas carols and presents and the commercialization of one of our most crucial religious observances.

Over time, both my experiences as a parish pastor and – more significantly – as a non-parish minister and pew-sitter, have changed my position. I’ve been ordained for just over nine years, and I’ve spent most of that time outside of the traditional confines of parish ministry. These days, I work in communications ministry for our national denominational offices, and I attend church on the rare Sunday my life with a toddler and baby-to-be allows. I come to Advent and Christmas more as a stumbling, distracted believer and busy working family member than as a pastor.

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

For me and for many other churchgoers around me, the liturgical specifics take a distant backseat to the realities of life. What claims the most real estate in my mind right now is pregnancy concerns and my looming due date, my toddler recovering from RSV, my father-in-law facing an ongoing medical crisis, job stress, strained friendships, and more. I am painfully aware that each of us is carrying so much that others don’t see.

But this time of year, inevitably, my Facebook feed and other corners of my life populated by clergy colleagues become overrun with gripes about how “ordinary people” don’t appreciate Advent. How they ask for the wrong hymns, or choose the wrong liturgical colors, or don’t volunteer to light the Advent wreath, or complain about Christmas worship options.

It is always the worst in years like this one when either Christmas or Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. Cue the loud debates about whether to alter the start of Advent or combine Advent 4 and Christmas Eve services, etc. Cue the long-winded rants about the “point of the season” and theological integrity.

It’s not that I’m not empathetic to these convictions. I’ve held them myself. It’s just that I know now too, intimately, how hollow they ring against a backdrop of dying family members, struggling relationships, tenuous finances, and individuals crumpled under the weight of fear and stress and overwhelm. And watching these debates and complaints play out, often in the digital public square, I find myself thinking, “no wonder people struggle to feel like the church really cares about them or is relevant to their daily lives.”

Because, I’m sorry, but which Sunday Advent begins on or how puritanically you can hold back the tide of Christmas music is not, in fact, the point of the season. God does not care what color your candles are.

The point of the season is a God who does not and did not wait for us to get it right. A God who is, ultimately and eternally, unconcerned with the proper procedure or the proper time. A God who was so desperate to be with us without one iota of distance or delay, that they overthrew the barriers of humanity and divinity, of life and death, of holy and mundane, to reach us.

The God we worship undertook one of the most arduous journeys there is—and I don’t mean the journey to and through the cross—I mean the human journey to be born in the first place—so that God didn’t have to wait for us to come to God. The God we believe in deems “decently and in order” to mean an overcrowded stable in the middle of the night with unfit company. The proper time and place is whenever and wherever we are. God comes to us in Jesus not for the sake of our wreaths and our hymns and our piety, but for the sake of our trembling hands and trembling hearts and trembling doubts.

The church may be concerned with worship times and lectionary texts, but God is concerned with all the weighty things concerning God’s children.

It’s not that I believe there is no beauty in our Advent and holiday observances. Rather, I think the opportunity and responsibility of the church is to witness to the beauty of God’s presence in all of it. Whichever Sunday Advent starts on, whatever time you have church on Christmas Eve, God’s love is there and everywhere in between. In every hospital room and around every tense dinner table and in the silence echoing in lonely souls.

Advent is a season of waiting. And it’s important. It’s important because there is a truth we are still waiting to fully know and fully understand and fully trust: that God does not wait. God enters into the midst and the mess of life right here, right now with us. God comes in the most delicate, finite, bounded, particular, and precise form of a newborn infant so that God’s love might spill recklessly, infinitely, boundlessly, and indiscriminately into every nook and cranny of this weary world.

This is the good news. This is the point. Whatever the candle, this is the Light.

Layton Williams Berkes is an ordained PC(USA) minister and the managing editor of Presbyterians Today as well as a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. She lives in Charleston, SC with her husband, Billy, her daughter, Avett, and their pets.