Sadly, we cannot escape these times when learning and stretching will not be ignored. I recently had one of those moments when I was made aware of some hypocritical space in my world when it comes to Advent imagery. For others, change and growth are fantastic, but for me, I would rather skip that part of the play. Alas, try as I might, I cannot avoid it.
You see, over the years, around early November, I pull out my “I’m better a better pastor than you” ladder and climb to the top of my tall-ass liturgical soap box from where I proclaim the evils of using light/good, dark/bad imagery during Advent. Each year I challenge myself and my colleagues to flex our liturgical muscles and be more creative in talking about what it means for Christ to be born into the world. I choose to believe that we have the capacity and theological depth to move away from imagery that equates light with good and dark with bad in order to resist reinforcing imagery that has fed racism for generations. We have the capacity and the pastoral obligation to help one another and the communities we serve to expand our collective experience and understanding of this holy season of preparation and waiting.
Sorry, I told you that my soap box was tall.
And while tweets like the one below can generate some accusatory and dismissive reactions; for the most part, folks are in agreement; words are important, and we can do better.
Over the years, I have been pretty good at practicing what I preach and intentionally avoiding “Light/Good, Dark/Bad” imagery in my writing, preaching, and worship planning.
And then, during a conversation that I was facilitating about ways to integrate crucial social justice concerns into worship, my colleague, Rev. Carlton David Johnson, Associate Director for Theology, Formation, and Evangelism at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dropped this nugget of brilliance (paraphrased), “At the center of our Advent wreathe, we use a black candle for the Christ candle.”
For those who were there, I was def thrown and kept revisiting the impact of Carlton’s sharing for the rest of the session. (That says something about who I hang with and the limits of my creativity.) I am sure many others have made this adjustment, but I had never seen it before.
Seriously, in all of my years of blustering about imagery, at the climax of the Advent season, I have been centering whiteness, not metaphorically, but actually. All this time, over nearly 30 years of pastoral leadership, I had managed to creatively expand Advent imagery, doing my best to resist language that reinforced darkness as evil, and yet, after all the candles were lit: the LAST one, the BEST one, the MOST IMPORTANT ONE, the CHRIST CANDLE was, at the end of the day, white.
So this year, damn right, our Advent wreath looks a little different.
If you do not already do this, take a moment to think about what would happen if you did this in your church. How would people respond if you changed the white Christ candle to one that was black or brown?
I am sure a few will rejoice and get it, “Of course, the Christ candle should be dark in color, Jesus after all, was dark-skinned,” but my guess is that you will quickly discover that there is no amount of mental gymnastics, cultural justification, or theological interpretation in the world to erase the fact that when most of think of the goodness of Christ being born into the world, whiteness is centered.
If you do this and people get anxious about the change, ask back, “Why does the Christ candle have to be white?” No doubt, many will respond with some form of, “Jesus was the ‘light of the world,’ so the candle should be white.” The thing is, the light is not generated by the color of the candle but from the light that that candle gives to the world. Candles of all colors can be a light to the world, even black and brown ones.