When I was a young boy, the day after Thanksgiving began what my parents eventually coined ‘the countdown to Christmas.’ Since I grew up in a church that did not celebrate liturgical seasons, we put our tree and decorated the day after Thanksgiving. This would begin the monotonous building of anticipation as presents were slowly added under the tree for a whole month. The week prior to Christmas, my parents would let me open one small gift early, because if they didn’t, they might lose their sanity. So, they would pick the package that I would tear open with excitement. Sometimes it was a pack of pencils for school, or a new pair of socks. Other years it was a pack of batteries that was meant to accompany some other bigger gift that I would receive on Christmas morning. What could it be that would require a set of six “D” batteries? Perhaps the latest Star Wars toy? Or, as I got older a new “Boom Box!” While the gift was never intended to fully satisfy my anticipation for Christmas morning, it did manage to enhance my joy and excitement as I began to imagine what Christmas surprise would be awaiting as I awoke at the crack of dawn and snuck downstairs to peer around the corner at the tree.
This building of excitement, anticipation, and joy is not just an experience of my childhood, but has emerged in my adulthood as an ‘angel in the architecture.’ In our monastery church, we follow a tradition that is common across liturgical traditions, of embodying this mounting joy in the wonderful symbol of the Advent wreath: a ring of seasonal evergreens with four candles that are lit one by one as we arrive at each new Sunday in Advent. Each week of Advent, we move further into darkness as we reach the longest night of the year at the Winter’s Solstice, which coincides closely to our celebration of Christmas, when we commemorate the birth of Jesus whom we know from John’s gospel as ‘the Light of the world.’ As each week progresses in the deepening darkness, we light a new candle in the anticipation and hope of the birth of Jesus, the Light of the world, at Christmas.
The third Sunday of Advent (just a little over a week before Christmas) is called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday—Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice.’ This day is marked by the addition of the color rose to the Advent blue, In many Advent wreaths, you’ll see three blue candles (or purple depending on your tradition) and one rose candle. Here at the monastery, we place pink roses among the evergreen branches of the wreath, and our altar frontal is turned around to the side that contains only blue and rose. The seasonal Advent Chasuble (the vestment worn by the presider at the Eucharist each day) has a ring around the shoulders that symbolizes the Advent wreath with four golden crosses, three set in a deep blue, and one set in a velvety swatch of rose.
Even as our building changes subtly around us, our worship reflects a similar change. In our readings for the third Sunday in Advent, we notice a shift in tone from a building anticipation of hope to one of rejoicing (there the ‘rejoice’ of Gaudete again). As I hear this call to rejoice early, I feel like a child again: It’s as if we have been given a present to open early in order to give expression to our joy as we approach Christmas.
Of course, like all the symbols of Advent, this observance is not only meant to symbolize the first Advent of Jesus at Christmas, but also to remind us that we are awaiting his second coming at the end of the age, when this veil of tears will melt away and we will all be together in the presence of God as one family beloved by our Creator. We still await the fulfillment of Jesus’ sacrifice to reunite all of creation through grace. In the meantime, we are all called to live in the spirit of the third Sunday of Advent, in joyful expectation and hope.
During this third week of Advent, reflect on those things that make you joyful. How are you being given a ray of hope in this present darkness? How is God pointing to gifts placed in your life like pink roses augmenting an evergreen landscape? What is your experience of living in the light of the third Sunday of Advent? How might you help to spread this joy to a darkened world so desperate for a new dawn that will usher in the growing light and warmth? Gaudete! Rejoice!
My mom used to tell the story that when I was a little boy, I enjoyed looking at family photo albums. One of the things that piqued my curiosity was the sudden transition from black and white pictures to those in full color. This seemed to mirror my experience of television shows in my early youth. One day I asked my parents, “What was it like living in a world without color?” After a quick chuckle, mom explained that the world had always had color but it wasn’t until the innovation of color film that we were able to take color pictures. I was both relieved and disappointed; relieved that my parents had always been able to experience color, and disappointed that color wasn’t some miracle of God that had occurred in my parent’s lifetime.
Yet, color is an amazing creation of God, and it plays an enormous role in our lives. Color helps to convey information, such as we see with traffic lights, where the simple signals of red, yellow, and green help us to avoid accidents. Color helps us discern whether an animal or plant is poisonous. Color enhances our experience of seasons: the pale then full-bodied greens of spring and summer and the reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn. Colors help to show our group affiliations, as we convey our pride in a sports team or national identity. Colors may even express and influence our moods. Many of us have a favorite color that gives insight into our personality which we may express in our choice of clothing, the walls in our favorite room, or the car we drive. Our colors connect directly to our identity and can shape how others relate to us.
This is even true in our relationship with God. I would say that color is an ‘angel in the architecture’ of our spiritual lives, because the iconic nature of colors points the way into a deeper mystery. In the architecture of our churches and especially our liturgy, colors convey the good news of the gospel and therefore enhance our worship of God. Each church season has its own set of colors that help us to enter into the mystery of God at a deeper level. For example, in our monastery church, the feast of a martyr (someone who gave their life in witness to the truth of the gospel) is signified by red, which is the color of blood. Green’s symbolism of life and vitality is on display during the season after Pentecost, when we live out the ordinary day-to-day of our lives in the light of our faith. The green we see in our church stretches out into the world beyond its doors as we encounter the trees in full leaf, the weekly cutting of our lawns, bushes and shrubs punctuated by flowers of different colors.
Advent follows suit with its own combination of colors. One color your local parish might use is violet, which has often been a penitential color. We see violet primarily in Lent which is a season of fasting and repentance that leads up to Holy Week and Easter. We also see violet in Advent because it is a season of introspection and preparation. As we await the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, we read in scripture about the need for repentance as well as the need to make room for our focus on the life of Jesus, especially as we see him in the faces of our neighbors. In Matthew’s gospel we hear John the Baptist exclaim: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The word repent literally means ‘to turn’: turn from self-seeking and selfish attitudes towards a world and life that are bigger than we are; turn from hording God’s gifts to a posture of stewardship and sharing those gifts with others.
At SSJE, our tradition is to use the color blue in Advent. Our church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary who cooperated with God in giving birth to Jesus, the human face of God in our midst. Traditionally, blue is the color associated with Mary and so our primary space of worship is imbued with the color blue as the sun shines through the stained glass. The altar is also draped in blue with accents of earthy green and rose (which we’ll talk more about next week) and match the vestments worn by the priest.
But blue is also the color of the water and the sky, the depths and the heights of creation. When the sun is high in the sky, we experience a brilliant blue as we gaze upwards into infinity. As the sun sets, the blue gets deeper and darker until we experience it as utter darkness, mystery, and uncertainty. The deepest, darkest, blue-black of night is when we ponder our finitude as sleep becomes a metaphor for death. We have faith that we will rise again with the coming of the light as the deepest black of the sky gives way again to blue as the sun rises an brings forth a new day.
There is an old bluegrass gospel song from the hills of southern Appalachia (where I’m from) that says, “The darkest hour is just before dawn.” This is a wonderful metaphor for Advent as we await the coming of the ‘Light of the world’ in the face of Jesus. The word “Advent” means ‘coming,’ and so this season, we both celebrate Jesus’ first Advent among humanity, and await his second Advent, when all shall live together as children of the most-high and the darkness shall give way to a brilliant blue spanning from the depths to the heights.
What colors do you associate with Advent? Think of what colors inform your experience of God in this season: Do you experience Advent in the violet of preparation or in the deepest depths and heights of the color blue? How is the experience of liturgical color an ‘angel in the architecture’ for you?
Welcome to “Angels in the Architecture,” a new podcast series by the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. My name is Br. Jim Woodrum and it is my pleasure to be your guide as we explore the angels in the architecture during this season of Advent.
You may be wondering what I mean when I say angels in the architecture. A few years ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in the UK, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road in Oxford, where our founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church, it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
You see, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church that didn’t talk very much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist that we get the word “angel.” That word is euangelion, and the words ‘evangelist’ and ‘angel’ are both imbued with this root meaning: one who brings good news. All angels have a specific vocation under this shared banner and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian Angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered not only about the angels lining the walls of the architecture in our church buildings—which ones were they?—but also what angels I might find in other places close to home, now that my eyes were opened. What other ‘structures’ beyond literal buildings might house angels, given that, in them, we experience tidings of good news? For instance, in the Anglican tradition (which includes the Episcopal Church) we have a book that sets up the structures of how we worship God in community. The Book of Common Prayer sets out to provide a “common,” which is to say a shared, structure of prayer and worship into which we can all enter, a structure that is familiar and provides for all our needs—including community, forgiveness, love, healing, blessing, and even how we bring our lives to a close. Might not the book, and our liturgy itself, also be a sort of architecture, full of angels?
Our church buildings, liturgies, colors, vestments, and traditions are angels—angels in the architecture—which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven—as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary for others.
Where do you recognize angels in the architecture that surrounds you? What angels have formed and guided you in your life? Some of these may be in our sacred buildings and liturgies, but if the Divine permeates all things, you might be able to recognize angels in your everyday life pointing the way into a deeper relationship with God.