For years we have used the Advent wreath as a way of deepening our understanding of the meaning of Christmas. Each Sunday during the Advent season we pause, light a candle, and reflect on what Christmas really means.

The first Sunday is about Hope. The Apostle Paul named hope as one of the three greatest things. And while he went on to save love is the greatest, without hope it’s hard to get anything done, including love. In the wake of a series of horrible natural disasters, we search for hope with all our strength.

The second week draws our attention to Peace. Peace permeates the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Angels greet poor shepherds with the words, “Peace on Earth.” Jesus himself is linked to prophetic image of “the Prince of Peace.”

The English word Peace is an effort to translate the Hebrew idea of Shalom. Shalom is more than just the absence of conflict. Shalom points to wholeness, healing, and prosperity. Given the sorry state of our world, Peace/Shalom is an entirely appropriate desire.

On the third week the focus is Joy. In some ways this is the most difficult of all the themes of Advent to grasp, and to experience. For many people Christmas serves as a powerful emotional magnifier.  If we have lost loved ones, we miss them more at Christmas. If we have personal problems, they seem larger at Christmas. Any struggle, any pain, any loss, seems more difficult during the season.

And then we feel guilty. We feel guilty that we are not happy. Everywhere there are people singing and children are laughing, and there are parties and family dinners to attend. Everyone seems to have a smile, but inside we are crying and feel guilty because of it.

But Joy is not happiness. Joy is a response to life that transcends any circumstance of life. Joy can be experienced even in the face of loss. It is possible to know joy even while weeping tears of grief. I have seen this countless times at funerals as family members grieve the loss of a loved one, while at the same time celebrate a life well lived.

In the context of Advent, we experience joy even as we grieve the circumstances of our world. The things Jesus told us to do are not yet done. There is war and poverty and misery. But we sing Joy to the World because we believe that in the coming of Christ those things will eventually be done. There will be peace, there will be healing, there will be hope. And we respond with joy for what we believe will eventually come to pass.

The fourth candle we light stands for love. It allows us to step back from the many negative images of God that permeate popular culture and remember that God is love. We are loved by God and the season of Christmas, for Christians, is an opportunity to celebrate that. The reason we have the hope of peace and the opportunity for joy is because of the love of God expressed in Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s why on Christmas Day we light one last candle—the Christ candle. Christians believe that Jesus is “the light of the world.” We also believe that the darkness cannot overtake this light. We light the Christ candle as an act of faith and trust. And we wait, with the light of Christ burning in our midst, for the fulfillment of our hope.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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