I can still remember the First Sunday of Advent, 1996.
One of our church families came forward and gathered around the wreath to light the first candle of the season. A litany was read from the pulpit, and then the oldest son (who must have been about twelve at the time) struck one of those big, wooden kitchen matches and lit the candle of Hope. Afterwards, he held the match up to his lips and blew it out, blowing out the flame of the candle at the same time. The congregation gasped. There was an awkward pause before he realized his mistake and corrected it by striking another match and lighting the candle again, and then blowing out the match—and the candle—again. This time, the congregation laughed out loud. What else could we do?
We Baptists aren’t all that good at liturgy. On the First Sunday of Advent, 2006, at First Baptist, Washington (“a church of Baptist tradition and ecumenical perspective”), I handed a brass taper to a new member who comes from the Anglican church and asked him if he knew how to handle one of those things. A taper, as you probably already know, is the proper name for one of those fancy candle-lighting thingamajigs. “Oh, yes,” he said with a smile. And then I asked if he would be interested in serving as a “candle consultant” (remembering the near-disaster of All Saints’ Sunday a few weeks before when we had tried to light candles for all those we had loved and lost and nearly lost a few more in the process).
Baptists are not all that good at liturgy, but one of the reasons First Baptist, DC, tried to cultivate an “ecumenical perspective” is that there is much to be learned from the larger household of our faith.
This matter of observing the seasons of the Christian year, for example, holds the promise of making every worship experience richer. At First Baptist, Richmond, we wait with breathless anticipation for the coming of Christ in Advent; we walk with him, trembling, toward the cross in the season of Lent; we crash cymbals and sound horns in celebration of his resurrection at Easter. Along with those broad themes are the colors and sounds and smells of the seasons. Advent begins in darkness, with the flame of Hope sputtering on its charred wick. We sing our hymns in minor keys. We drape the church in purple. But as the other candles are lit in the weeks that follow—peace, and joy, and love—the sense of expectancy is heightened, and when the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve, the mood shifts suddenly and dramatically. The church is filled with light. Deep purple is replaced by brilliant white and gold. The minor key modulates into the major and suddenly it is nothing but joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Hope to see you in church this Sunday.