My younger sister and I used to fight over who would get to blow out the candles of the Advent wreath. We'd light the candles at dinner, and as soon as we were finished eating, the back and forth of "You did it last night, it's my turn!" would start. My parents would referee, insisting we could figure it out as they cleaned the kitchen.
We'd sit there, waiting each other out to see who would get up from the table first, leaving the more patient one to finish the job.
Well into young adulthood the battle continued, and even just the other night as my family gathered at my home for dinner, my sister and I sat at the table for an extra 20 minutes to see who'd get the prized task of blowing out the candles. (I lost only because I had to go feed the baby.)
The Advent wreath has long been a great comfort for me. We'd sit around the wreath after long days at work and school and talk about our day, the candles like magnets holding us all together. I'd come home from college, the long fall semester behind me, and there it would be, sitting on the table.
My husband and I made one the first year we were married, and at the Third Week of Advent we lit the pink candle to celebrate joy, both of Christ's Birth and the news we were expecting our first child. And now, that little girl insists we light the candles of the wreath at every single meal, because this shouldn't just be a dinnertime practice.
When we pull out our Advent wreaths, we're beginning to close the year, with the wreath as an anchor. It's familiar. The four candles, three purple, one pink, fashioned in a circle, the greenery holding them together, remind us of what's coming – new life in the one who is to come. And with that new life, a new year, perhaps one filled with all the things we pray on in this final month of the year: hope and peace, love and joy.
This year has proven remarkably difficult and profoundly sad, and I think we could all use the symbolism and stability of an Advent wreath: light, flickering in the dark. Candles, burning bright, growing shorter as we get closer to the joyful Christmas day, longing for warmth and comfort.
Countless times this year I've asked, "Where are you, Lord?" When my grandmother died in June, when two hurricanes hit my hometown six weeks apart, when my income was lost from canceled events, when I had to give birth away from home, with a new doctor. At each turn, I've asked, "Where are you, Lord?"
Even though I've always loved the Advent wreath, I almost didn't pull it out this year. As comforting as it's been, and as much as I love the tradition, I was resentful of the idea that I should be joyfully anticipating the birth of Jesus in a year when he's seemed to be hiding.
But the first night I reluctantly set it out on our table, and lit the first candle, my three-year-old daughter insisted I light all four candles at once. Even as we explained that we light them just one at a time, symbolizing our patience as we wait for Jesus, she proudly declared, "But Jesus is right here, in my heart!"
That's where he's been. In this oh so challenging 2020, with so much death and suffering, so much heartache and defeat, we've asked, "Where are you, Lord?" and he's whispered in the quiet, "I'm right here – in your heart."
As we light the candles of our wreaths, trim the trees strung with lights, wrap the presents and long for better days ahead, may we hold fast to the promise of this season: Jesus is coming. In fact, he's already here.
Katie Prejean McGrady is an international Catholic speaker and award-winning author. She hosts the Ave Explores podcast and lives in Louisiana with her husband and daughters.