Growing up, I remember Christmases in church. Every Sunday through the month of December, a sweet looking family would walk to the stage with a long brass candlelighter and light the first, then the second, and third, and fourth, and finally, on Christmas Eve, the center fifth Advent candles.
I always wanted to be that family.
You see, the first twelve years of my life, my father was the pastor of the church. Little known fact: the pastor’s family is never the chosen Sunday family to light the Advent candles. I’m sure it would come off far too prideful for the pastor to pick his own family.
Then, after my parents divorce, I watched other families more picture perfect than my own busted-up one light the advent candles from eighth grade through college. Another, maybe better known, fact (unfortunately) is my particular denomination wasn’t high on featuring single moms with their kids on the stage in the ’80s.
I left the church for a little while in my 20s, and when I returned, I had largely packed away those thoughts of picture perfect Advent families.
After Bray and I married, we quickly learned we might never be able to have children. So I spent another few Christmases trying not to burst into tears when those Advent families would walk to the stage to light those candles. The moms and dads all beautifully dressed with their children in Christmas plaid or festive sweaters. How easy life must be for them, I thought; They have no idea how good they’ve got it.
Years passed. The kids came. Christmases were precious but a blur. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine on our church staff emailed me to see if our family would be willing to be the Advent family this Sunday. All those packed away emotions about Advent families came tumbling out and I enthusiastically agreed.
FINALLY! The Advent family.
But we weren’t perfect and shiny. Our lives weren’t easy. We weren’t the poster family for easy faith and extravagant Christmases. In the simple span of this fall, my husband lost his job, my father received a tough diagnosis with a complicated surgery scheduled, a child faced emotional challenges, all alongside long work hours, sleepless nights, budget cutbacks, school assignments, and all the rest.
The shiny happy Advent family illusions shattered.
And then the light, from more than those candles, dawned.
All those hundreds of families I idolized over the years didn’t have it easy. Who knows what burdens they left in their seats when they approached the stage. Or even those they carried with them as they went ahead and bravely illustrated what we truly celebrate this month as they lighted each candle.
As I led the reading while Bray lighted the candles, the words sunk down deep:
Leader – Today we relight the candles of Hope and Love. Now, we light the candle of Joy, and as we do, we remember –
Everyone – We remember that Christ alone is our ultimate source of hope, love, and everlasting joy.
Leader – The prophet Jeremiah says, “I will turn their mourning into joy, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
Everyone – We remember our need for a Savior who will save us from our sins, and that His birth is good news of great joy for all people, because it is news of that promised Savior.
We light the candle of joy.
We remember Christ alone is our ultimate source of hope, love, and joy.
Next week, another imperfect family will light the candle of peace. The following Thursday, a final family will light the Christ candle which shines in the middle of the circle.
We stood up there today, as so many families over the years and around the world have done, as a testimony and as a challenge. A testimony to what we believe in the dark years and the light ones. A challenge to really believe it. That all the circumstantial changes around us cannot break our hope, love, joy and peace if we will remember to root it in the One who is those things.