The first candle has been lit and Advent begins. On Sunday night, we set our own advent ring on the table at home and the big kids helped our little Plum count the spaces until Christmas. Three more candles, six more cards to decorate. It will be a month of waiting –  but a month of waiting in growing light. It struck me that the advent ring is like a slow reversal of the Good Friday Tenebrae service, as we add light each week.

The song I would like to give you this week is Graham Kendrick’s Like a Candle Flame. You can listen to it here. It’s a haunting carol, with longing and rejoicing mingling together.

Like a candle flame
Flickering small in our darkness
Uncreated light
Shines through infant eyes.

I see a dark, Rembrandt stable, the shadows close-gathered and protective. But in the dark, there is strange light. Uncreated light. Something new. And in being new, unsettling. This light is different and those who gather around it can sense that this is more than they have known.

The image is a photograph – one of the earliest photographs, taken by the pioneering French photographer Charles Nègre. It depicts a candle seller in 1851 in front of Chartres Cathedral. You can find the image here in the collection at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The old woman sits by the walls of the cathedral with her box of candles. Her clothes are thick against the cold, the fabric of her woollen skirt hemmed with stripes like heavy candle sticks . You can imagine her walking through the small streets, her table folded under her arm and the box awkward as she makes her way across the square towards the cathedral. She will be glad to sit down. Glad, too, when people come to speak with her before the Mass. She likes to talk, and living alone is so quiet. It is a cold day, though bright. Almost midwinter. The time of year when more people come into the cathedral, which means more prayers and more candles and that, too, makes her glad. She doesn’t feel awkward about selling candles. The few coins she makes do help, but she thinks of it in terms that are not quite financial. She makes her living by helping others to pray. She is preparing the way.

On Sunday, as we light the second candle of Advent, we will remember John the Baptism as Luke describes him, proclaiming a baptism of repentance and echoing Isaiah’s song.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

 And so we do. In large ways and small ways, we prepare a path. We find ways to share our glimpses of the uncreated light through the work of our hands. We remember the old callings and we smooth the rough places in the awkward world and in our own forgetful hearts. This, too, is the work of Advent.