One of my favorite ways to pray during Advent is by candlelight. Easily distracted by the anxieties and to-do lists of everyday life, the post-Thanksgiving rush to Christmas can sometimes just be too much. As beautiful as the Christmas season is, I need every minute of Advent to gear up for the joyful and noisy time with family, loudly-sung Christmas carols, Midnight Mass, wrapping paper messes and eclectically-trimmed trees.
Which is part of why I love to pray in a dark and quiet space, with only the light of an Advent Wreath to break the silence of that visible peace and calm.
In a time that is often filled with the stress and busyness of gift-buying, decorating and baking, extra family time—and when I was a student, with finals and end-of-term papers—being surrounded by near total darkness helps me to forget my worldly cares and concerns and to focus on the cares and concerns of the heart. The areas of my life, both interior and exterior, that I am not allowing Christ, the Light of the World, to enter.
It sounds a little silly to talk about preparing for something that is already itself a period of preparation, but as much as “winging it,” can often be our go-to style of life, opening ourselves to the repentance and grace of Advent requires a willing and aware cooperation with the opportunities for receiving it.
Just as candles need oxygen to burn, we need the space to be receptive to grace. And sometimes—almost always really—this requires a spiritual purging of whatever might be separating us from the Light of Christ.
Receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is always a good place to start, of course. Giving things up isn’t just for Lent either—Advent is also a penitential season.
So before Advent begins, we should ask ourselves what grime might be dirtying the walls of our heart? And decide what changes we can make to allow room in our lives and in our hearts for God’s grace to work.
Perhaps you struggle with selfishness? Volunteer at a soup kitchen, or rake a neighbor’s leaves. What about hardness of heart? Take some time to really play and spend time with your children or the children of a friend or family member. Or go out of your way to help a family member you find difficult. If it’s gluttony, then give up whatever particular food or drink you find it most difficult not to overindulge in. Laziness? Schedule in and stick to some set-aside prayer time in front of the Eucharist. Wake up earlier to attend daily Mass before work. Feeling spiritually or physically burnt-out? Attend an Advent mission talk at a parish. Put up a Jesse Tree, reading daily Scripture passages as you hang the ornaments.
Are you restless and distracted and busy? Try turning out the lights at night and praying or reading a reflection by only the light of the candles in an Advent Wreath.
About six weeks ago, near the votive candles in a Catholic church in Vienna, I found a small, thin brochure which had printed on the front the words: “Take and Read.” What I found inside was a little reflection on the use and symbolism of candles to aid in prayer, and on the back was this prayer:
a candle stands before me.
It burns restlessly,
sometimes with a small,
sometimes with a larger flame.
Lord, I too am often restless.
Let me find rest in You.
It gives me light and warmth.
Lord, let me too be light for the world.
It burns away and consumes itself in its service.
Lord, may I also be of service to people.
With this candle I can ignite other candles.
Lord, may I also contribute in this way
that others may begin to shine.
We can often get wrapped up in the whirlwind of the secular world’s rush to Christmas. And although the world certainly needs Christmas, the world needs Advent too. So how can we be light for the world during this season. How can we prepare our own hearts in such a way that their light and joy spread?
Interior preparation can be easy to forget or ignore amid all the other preparations because it is just that, interior. We can see the growing pile of gifts under the tree and the number of peanut butter balls multiplying on the counter, but our spiritual readiness cannot be measured.
And this is why it must be as carefully prepared—or perhaps even more carefully prepared—than anything else on our to-do lists this season.
Thus the candles in the Advent wreath, one for each week, are a visible reminder to us of the approach of the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, who dispels all the darkness of our world and cleanses our sins in the fire of his love.