A young woman had just become the associate pastor of a big suburban church—her first job in ministry—and was asked to give a children’s sermon during the season of Advent. She’d had a hard, busy week and arrived at that Sunday frazzled and unprepared. And so, as worship began, she decided that she would just gather up all the kids in the chancel and conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” children’s time. She figured that she could handle whatever the munchkins might throw at her—I mean, how hard could the questions be?
Now, to conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” session is an act of hubris under any circumstances, but it’s nothing less than a death wish to do it with children, especially when you have made already the mistake of underestimating them. But she had no other tricks up her sleeve that day, and so she went ahead.
So there they were, all the kids gathered around the minister, pondering things they wanted to ask her. Right away, up went a hand and out came a question. “Why,” the little one asked, “is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink?”
The associate minister knew a lot about many things from her seminary training—ecclesiology, scripture, soteriology, and why bad things happen to good people—but she had slept through the class on pink Advent candles. Wait, was there a class on pink Advent candles? She had no idea. So she made another big mistake, and turned the question back to the little questioner.
“What a great question, Jimmy!” she enthused. “So, tell us, why do you think there is one pink candle?”
“Ummm…. because you ran out of purple?”
Jimmy’s reply unleashed a flurry of further fantastical kiddie speculation that, while hilarious, was not exactly on point. Finally, a grown-up sitting with the kids came to everybody’s rescue. “The pink candle stands for joy,” he said.
Ah, that made some sense. “Right!” said the associate minister, as if she’d known it all along. “It stands for joy!” she crowed to the assembly, sending the children back to their pews. And everybody seemed relieved, if not downright joyful, to get that truly weird moment over with.
“It stands for joy.” Well, yes, in fact it does.
Advent is a short season. It doesn’t require as much spiritual stamina as does its more ferocious sibling, Lent. Nonetheless, if you enroll in Advent’s exacting school of bodily yearning; if you adopt its characteristic practice of pondering the end of all things, including your own end, even as you await a wonderful birth; if you accept its sobering climate, its invitation to change your mind now and turn your life around; if you hear its insistence that you watch tirelessly and wait perseveringly for the promised dawn to appear, then right about now, in this third week, you could probably use a little pink. You might really welcome an injection of color into the monochrome wildernesses of this season. You could be ready for a giddy moment of release in the discipline that insists, against the culture and our own inclinations, that we delay our gratification, order and purify our desires until the promised dawn appears.
And so the color of the third candle is pink, and the color of the scripture reading is too. It’s a burst of rosy exuberance from the prophet Isaiah who foresees the day when the long-exiled people will come home to Zion at last in a great pilgrimage procession on a broad highway through a well-watered desert in impossible bloom.
In this luscious vision, God’s greening of the desert, the healing of the natural world, is matched by God’s greening of all things human—the healing and restoration of infirm and outcast people, the ransom and exaltation of the poor and forgotten. Thus, as one preacher put it, God “embroiders a tapestry of salvation with threads from the inorganic, plant, animal, and human worlds,” a peace that is ecological, personal, and communal.
And the sign and proof of God’s mercy in healing all creation is an outpouring of music. At the heart of the new creation is the song. The desert flowers are singing, people who all their lives have not been physically able to utter a word are singing, the company of ransomed captives is singing, the cosmos itself is singing.
Everything is aflush with hope, pink and rosy and bright. And we are meant to feel the mounting excitement of something new just around the corner, something promised, something coming, something good.
For us who call ourselves Christians, that something good is God-with-us, Jesus, born of Mary, the Rose of Sharon, as the medieval theologians would say. He comes to us in a feeding trough surrounded by peaceable animals. The infirm and outcast come to him. The poor adore him. He is a well of living water in the human desert. He turns that water into wine of endless supply. He multiplies loaves for us in the wilderness, more than we need. He himself is the highway on which we travel back home together rejoicing, after a long sad exile.
Jesus is for us the graceful well-being promised from of old, the healing that restores nature and human nature in the harmonious wholeness of God’s original intent. And in his presence, as sign and proof that this is the handiwork of the compassionate God, there is singing.
“Magnificat anima mea,” sings the pregnant Mary as she greets her cousin, Elizabeth. My soul magnifies the Lord who pulls tyrants from their thrones.
“Gloria in excelsis Deo!” sing the angels to announce his birth. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to all people on earth!
And the old man Simeon sings at the sight of the baby in the temple, “My eyes behold your promise, Lord; it is fulfilled! Now I can die in peace!”
In the presence of the Holy One, everyone sings. Everything makes music. And we do too. Singing is the way we feel a promised world that we can only imagine. It’s our way of knowing the truth that otherwise we only weakly grasp. When we sing we experience the whole, healed life we were meant for. When we sing, we are, at least for the length of the song, exactly who we were created to be. Our song is sign and proof of God’s delight in us, God’s re-creative power at work among us, God’s inexpressible nearness to us.
Our singing is a practice and it is a gift. It has many names – grace, vision, life-line, surrender, healing, re-creation. It is also (to borrow a line from Robert Frost) “a momentary stay against confusion.” For when we gather in the pink beauty of Advent, we don’t come alone. Along with us come also the power struggles of spouses, the resentments of children, the toxic waste of landfills, the gunfire of our streets, the injustice of our economic system, and the quarrelsome niceties of our theologies. When we gather here in the rosy glow of Isaiah’s vision of a redeemed cosmos, the unredeemed world is always with us. And in these circumstances, and because of all the odds arrayed against Advent’s beauty and promise, we have no choice but to sing. No other strength and power but the unending song of God.
As people of God’s song we are compelled to believe that sooner or later, our relentless singing will so bewilder the enemies of love that they will have no choice but to give up and turn themselves in. They will bow to the Mystery that is even now eroding the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life, and the door will fly open. Sooner or later, the song will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.
When we sing we feel the world we can only imagine. Sing, then, on this Sunday of joy, as if by singing high walls will fall, locked chains will snap. Sing as if you believe that at the sound of our songs, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger. Sing as if you believe that by singing, one day the only sound in the whole creation will be a melody of delight – God’s delight in us, and ours in God.
So sing, heavenly bodies in your orbits, stars in your exploding light. Choirs of angels, sing. Sing, Church, a song of healing, a song of resistance, a song of peace. Sing, all the earth—sing for your life! Our God is near!