The Pink Candle

Sunday 11th December 2005
Year B, The Third Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Isaiah 61:1-2;
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8; 1:19-28

This is the time of year for stews and casseroles; and what I really like is that exquisite, random, surprise moment when you bite into an ordinary-looking spoonful and you hit a whole, green peppercorn or, even better, a chilli. All of a sudden your mouth explodes and you gasp; and people smile; and you reach for your glass; and then the taste settles down into a warm, sharp energising glow. Who would honestly want stew without a few surprises like that?

It's the same with other food. I like biting into a slice of mild white cheese and suddenly hitting the blue vein; I like prunes hidden at the bottom of meat dishes and a shard of lemon peel buried in a sweet sauce; and bits of anchovy turning up in all sorts of unlikely places. And at a more aesthetic level I like music that is sad and happy at the same time; and visually I have always liked spectacular modern glass incorporated into ancient buildings; and I particularly like stripes and segments. I don't want all the different flavours, moods, styles or colours cancelling each other out; I like Battenburg cake and trifles that don't get their layers muddled up; I like big pieces of Mondrian; and I like Big Bruckner outbursts and silences.

And so, for this reason, I don't find today, the day of the pink candle, strange at all. I really don't want purple for four solid weeks, I like this pink day of rejoicing, not the blood red nor the sparkling white of Christmas day but a hopeful forerunner.

Today's Old Testament and Gospel readings are both about forerunners bringing hope. The passage from Isaiah comes from mid way through the triumphant and visionary conclusion of this massive book of Prophecy. This hopeful vein is so marked after the 54 chapters of almost unmitigated misery that most scholars think that the writer was a third Isaiah, or perhaps a third writing team, following on from the previous Proto- and Deutero-isaiahs. After all the trauma of military defeat and exile from their land suffered by the People of God because of their unfaithfulness, Isaiah says that all will be well, not just for now, not just because the people are returning to Jerusalem but also because they can look forward to the coming of a Messiah. After all that purple, Isaiah is invoking the age of pink, the age of joyful hope.

The passage of John's Gospel describing the mission of John the Baptist quotes Isaiah directly. John the Baptist has come to make straight the way of the Lord, to get the people ready for Jesus. This puzzles the Jewish religious leaders. Faithful to Isaiah, they are waiting for a Messiah although many of them tend to think of Him as a kingly figure like David or Solomon; but they believe from the Scriptures that the Messiah cannot come unless he is preceded by the return of the Prophet Elijah (or Elias) which is why he figures in the dialogue between John and his questioners and why he appears in the description of the Transfiguration of Jesus and is mentioned in accounts of the final minutes of Jesus earthly life. John often comes across as rather a forbidding figure; I think this is because of the rather unlikely diet of locusts and wild honey and the unflattering fashion note about camel's hair and a belt. John is strictly in the line of unorthodox, socially awkward prophets who today would doubtless be found crying for penitence in the street, firmly banned from all church property. Let's face it, it doesn't matter how holy you are, you can't come into church without wearing a proper top (brisk Churchwardenly wave of the stave); and don't loiter round here shouting prophesies or I'll call the Police on my mobile. But underlying all the eccentricity and drama of John, his, too, is a message of hope; he may preach repentance but, to parody Gordon Brown, it is repentance with a purpose. John is bringing the good news of the Messiah, he is lighting a pink candle amongst the purple.

Now it is a rare and grand thing when Isaiah, John the Evangelist and St. Paul unite in hopeful joy; but here we have it. In his Letter to the Thessalonians St. Paul, too, is looking forward in the light of the life and Resurrection of Jesus to the coming of the Kingdom; and he says some very straight and direct things to us: pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophets; test everything; hold fast to the good; but, above all else, rejoice always!

Always! That's a bit much, isn't it? It was bad enough three weeks ago stirring up a bit of rejoicing before we all settled down nicely into Advent penitence. Now I'm being asked to get us all into a joyful mood when again we're all nicely settled. So to ask us all to rejoice always is a bit daunting.

But this is where we come back to the idea of stripes, and chillies in the stew. We are all really quite good at being more than one thing at once. We may be quite properly seeking the time for peace and penitence in Advent but it isn't stopping the shopping. We might quite properly think that this is a good time to eat simply and frugally but that won't stop us thinking about the menu for Christmas Day; and even amidst our attempts to lead simple lives there are all kinds of pre Christmas festivities with mulled wine, mince pies and Carols.

As we get ready, then, there are two different coloured stripes in church, the purple of penitence and the white of Christmas itself for which we are preparing; and of course there's all that red rampaging outside. Let us love them all for what they are; and if a bit of one takes us by surprise and suddenly illuminates the others, all the better. I don't think I can take another person telling me how much they hate the commercialism of Christmas. How we balance sacrifice and generosity is a personal matter - if our generosity doesn't cost any sacrifice we're probably not being generous enough - but let us not blame the shopkeepers; and let us not put on the long faces of Pharisees as we tell our friends in church how commercial Christmas has got before skipping off to supermarkets and toy shops with our long lists.

And remember, if we are going to be penitent, to be ascetic, to give ourselves an economic and spiritual hard time, we must, at all costs, hide this mortification and appear to be just the opposite.

So if anybody comes up to me in a really jolly mood I will know that they are secretly fasting; or not. That is the dilemma of living in such an ambiguous age. That is why we are so lucky to be celebrating in church today, looking forward to the hope that Jesus will bring. With Jesus as our leader, we really should know how to enjoy ourselves.

Rejoice In the Lord Always!