“Everybody is doing the best they can,” said my friend. It was Shirley Rabb Winston the well-known opera singer and teacher. She was a powerful woman, but never forced her ideas on me, and I wasn’t buying this one. “Oh, I can think of a few people who might not be doing their very best” I replied. At the time, I had a fairly long list of people whom I thought could be doing better. Maybe you do too. It might be President Trump, or maybe your boss, or your wife, or even me… It could be anybody.
I have learned a lot since then. You probably have too. One of the key lessons of these past decades… and, yes, it took that long for me to finally get it… is that everybody really is doing the best they can.
I thought about that last week as I was shopping for Advent candles. I live in Saudi Arabia, so I knew I wouldn’t find the box labeled, “Advent Candles”. We don’t have those here. But, I set out optimistically enough thinking that I’d be able to cobble something together without too much trouble.
When I lived in China it wasn’t a problem because you can get almost anything in China. Real dill pickles are still a rare find, but almost anything else can be had, including Advent candles, if you know where to look.
In Burma, I was reduced to using colored birthday candles, but it worked. They have plenty of candles in Burma, that’s not the problem. It’s just that they are mainly ocher temple candles and they are not the right colors. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but the colors do mean something: Three of the candles are blue or purple. One is rose colored, and one is white. The colors matter.
You can choose either blue or purple, it doesn’t matter. It’s up to you. Both remind us of the royal baby king whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks. You might have to take whatever you can find. Do the best you can.
On the first week of Advent, that’s next week, we will light a blue or purple candle. It’s called the Prophecy Candle; some people call it the Candle of Hope. We light it in anticipation of God coming to be with us.
The second blue or purple candle is called the Bethlehem Candle, or the Candle of Preparation. It reminds us that we have work to do before we can receive the gift of God’s presence in our lives.
On the third week of Advent we will switch to a rose-colored candle. This is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means rejoice. It is a joyful week of anticipation and renewed hope that the dark days of waiting will come to an end and that God will become known to us. Another name for Gaudete is Refreshment Sunday. You can relax your fast a little bit this week.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent we will light another blue or purple candle. This one is called the Peace Candle. It reminds us of the Angel’s message of peace on Earth.
Finally, on Christmas Day we will light the white Christ Candle. We use white for our most joyous celebrations. Sometimes you’ll see a little gold in the vestments and paraments. You might even use a gold candle as your Christ Candle. It’s not the most traditional, and I am not in a position to authorize it, but I’d do it. If I had a gold candle, I sure would.
Last week, though, as I was shopping for just the right candles it became clear that I was not going to have a gold candle. In the end, I didn’t get a white one either, nor blue, nor purple, and not even a rose-colored candle for Gaudete. All those colors were in the shops but they were all different styles. Blue tapers, white tea lights, purple pillars… I couldn’t find all the colors I needed in any single style. I was doing my best.
Instead, I settled on one very nice candle. It is egg-shaped, big enough to last all month, and it has roses carved into the side so it’ll be just right for at least one week. Something about the whole thing made me feel sad, though. I had wanted to do better. It is hard to keep faith with the institutional church when I am out here in the world. I have to make an effort. Something about even this very nice candle felt like a failure. That is when I remembered the words of my old friend, “Everybody is doing the best they can.”
The holidays are a time of all kinds of stress. I don’t have to tell you about it. You know! Add to that the nagging feeling that despite all the wrong kinds of candles and our very best failing efforts, Jesus might not even show up. He might not become known any more in 2019 than he was in 2018. The God who became one of us might just as well have stayed in Heaven since he can seem so very absent in our lives. Christianity offers no guarantees. It is a hard path. And so, it begins… the season of stress – travel stress, money stress, liturgy stress, family stress, worrying about Jesus stress. No matter how spiritual you are, there are going to be rocky moments.
During this time, it is most important to remember that everybody is doing the best they can. Sometimes our best is pretty good, sometimes it’s not. But everybody is doing the best they can under the load that they carry. It was an enormous load off me when I finally came around on this point. It means that I don’t have to blame people, I can just acknowledge circumstances. I don’t have to goad people on to do better because they are already doing their best. It’s really liberating. So, if we can’t have the right kinds of candles, if the family dinner doesn’t go off just right, if the wine spills at midnight mass let’s follow a path of compassion instead of digging ourselves further into the pit of stress.
It’s not in the Bible, but I do think Jesus would agree.
Linda McMillan is doing the best she can in Saudi Arabia.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
If you haven’t gotten yours yet, you can buy an actual box of candles that are specifically for Advent. You can buy Advent candles here. They even have “Mega Candles” which might tempt me if I were going to be in one place this holiday season.
You can also buy ready-made Advent wreaths. Your favorite florist will probably make one up for you. Personally, I like making my own. Maybe I started because I couldn’t afford a fancy one, but now I wouldn’t want one that somebody else had made. It’s part of my Advent tradition. You can do what suits you, of course.
Here’s an interesting blog post about liturgical colors, and it addresses the issue of blue or purple quite nicely, I think. It explains why either one is OK.
Shirley Rabb Winston is the one who taught me that everybody is doing the best they can. She didn’t live long enough to hear me say, “You were right,” but she was… and she knew it.