The General Ordination Exams of the Episcopal Church, the GOE’s, are taken in January of your final year of seminary. These are a series of essays over a week’s period of time. Some were open notes and sources, which meant you needed to cite your work and quickly provide concrete examples, while others were closed: only your brain (and sometimes a Bible or the Prayer Book) was allowed.
There use to be a section of the exam referred to as the “Coffee Hour Questions”: they were random questions, potentially on anything, that a parishioner might come up and ask you. Most of these questions, however, were not seeking a pastoral response, but a factual response: who is so and so, and what does such and such mean. Oh yeah, no notes or sources were allowed on this section. You were supposed to be ready for what people might ask you “after church”: in an unknown parish, potentially anywhere in the Episcopal Church, and at any time of the year. Well, only about 10,000 years of history and theology to potentially worry about. Even if you limited your cramming session for this exam to the time of Jesus, that’s still 2000 years of things to remember!
Now, in real life, when someone asks me a Church question I don’t know, I respond “I’m not really sure, but I know how to find out. Why don’t we meet in the office sometime this week and we can talk about it?” Or, since we’re wireless here at All Saints’, I can respond: “give me a moment to Google it…” That’s a reasonable response: after all, very few people really expect a priest to be a walking church encyclopedia (which is a really, really good thing…)
Answers like these, however, do not earn any credit on the GOE’s. So, on this exam, you’d have to fake your way though answers you didn’t completely know, hoping you’d get enough stuff right (and sound confident enough) to get some credit.
It’s my experience that clergy, even when they’re not sure, sometimes still give GOE answers to people, perhaps thinking something like: “I’m not sure, I think it might be this, but I’m going to tell you in a way that makes it sound like I really know, since you must be thinking that I should know…”
That is the way I answered a question a couple Sundays ago on the Pink Advent candle, as to whether it was to be lit. I said “Oh, that’s for later in Advent.” When it was clear that the person wanted a little more said, I responded, “It’s a tradition, and it, um, has connections to Mary.”
In my defense, let me say that I was doing some multi-tasking at the time, and that technically I'm not that off the truth. However, it wasn’t a very good answer, and “I’ll have to get back to you to give a more compete answer” would have been a much better response.
Since I’ve had a few more people ask me about the Pink Candle, I decided to do some research.
I started online: Roman Catholic priest William Saunders writes that the Advent wreath is part of our long-standing Catholic tradition. However, the actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.
By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. By 1600, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath
From a quick look at a few other websites, you can quickly discover that the Pink candle has been traditionally lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. It was called Gaudete Sunday. "Gaudete" means "Rejoice!" in Latin. Some Protestant churches light it on the 4th Sunday, where it is associated with the Nativity of Jesus, and the impending breaking of light into the world with his birth.
I wanted, however, a Episcopal definition, so I turned An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians (edited by Don Armentrout & Robert Boak Slocum).
There was no entry on “Pink Candle”
There was also nothing about the Pink candle, or the 3rd Sunday of Advent, under the entries for “Advent” or “Advent wreath. I had to look under "Gaudete Sunday" to finally find something:
The third Sunday of Advent in the Roman Catholic calendar of the church year. The term is derived from the Latin opening words of the introit antiphon, "Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always." The theme of the day expresses the joy of anticipation at the approach of the Christmas celebration. This theme reflects a lightening of the tone of the traditional Advent observance. It was appropriate for the celebrant of the Mass to wear rose-colored vestments on this day instead of the deeper violet vestments that were typically used in Advent. This Sunday was also known as "Rose Sunday." This custom is not required by the Episcopal Church, but it is observed by some parishes with a traditional Anglo-Catholic piety. This custom is reflected by the practice of including a pink or rose-colored candle among the four candles of an Advent wreath.
Finally having an Episcopal definition, I returned to the internet to see what some Episcopal Clergy have said on the subject.
The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton writes that a Choir member in her congregation told her that, as a child living in England, his aunt used to know when to start the Christmas Pudding because she'd listen to the collect prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The prayer begins, "Stir up your power, O Lord . . ." No wonder some call this "Stir up Sunday." It is also known as "Mothering Sunday " or "Refreshment Sunday." This has a long tradition in England, beginning in medieval times when servants were given this Sunday off to visit their mothers and family members. During the long season of Lent, the church adapted this tradition and it became customary in some places to visit the 'mother church' or the cathedral of one's diocese mid-Lent, or the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was a time of refreshment and relaxing the penitential discipline of Lent. Rose-pink vestments were allowed to take the place of the purple vestments of Lent.
(I know I said Lent over and over again here, I’m not misspeaking, but the explanation comes later…”
“Traditionally, the church invites us today, half way through Advent, to lighten up a little on our penitential practices. The pink candle on the Advent wreath, as well as the rose-colored vestments seen on this day in some churches, reminds us of the hope and joy to come in the Nativity of the Lord.”
Hegedus notes the irony of this in today’s world, noting that few “…need a break from fasting and prayer in the hectic final weeks before Christmas. Quite likely, just the opposite is true. Would that we were so earnest about our Advent observance that we needed a break from its rigors. Perhaps what we really need is to lighten up on last minute shopping and social engagements and allow the Lord to genuinely stir up our hearts in anticipation of what this season is really about: Emmanuel, God With Us.”
The most memorable explanation of the pink candle, however, was given by the Rt. Rev'd Cate Waynick, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Southern Indiana, who set the record straight her very first Advent Season as bishop. When asked why the third candle on the Advent wreath was pink, she responded:
“I'll tell you the truth no one else dares tell you. The third candle on the Advent Wreath is pink because," intoned the new bishop, with great authority and certainty, "Mary really wanted a girl." (cited in Rev. Kaeton's 2005 sermon)
It was, however, The House Church Network Association, which provides one of the most complete answers on the web:
In the earliest years of the church the only church season was Lent, the seven weeks prior to Easter. Lent was a season of fasting and prayer as the church commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus. The traditional color of banners in the church during this time was a deep purple, signifying royalty, repentance, and suffering. During Lent the church lit seven candles, one for each week of the solemn season. However solemn the season, the story of Lent also has a twinge of hope and joy since the death of Christ prefigured the resurrection. So, on the (fourth) Sunday of Lent, the church was encouraged not to fast, but to feast. In ancient times on this particular Sunday the Pope would honor a citizen with a pink rose, and as time passed the priests wore pink vestments on this day as a reminder of the coming joy.
When the season of Advent was instituted the church viewed it as a mini-Lent, a time for reflection and repentance (thus the purple). In so doing, the church adopted the first four candles of Lent and changed the third candle of Advent to pink in honor of the Lenten tradition. This is why we have a pink candle in our Advent Wreaths.
To further heighten the sense of anticipation of Christ's coming during Advent, the church named each candle in the wreath -- the first being hope, the second peace, the third joy, and the fourth love: there are a number of other traditional names as well, though these are some of the most ancient. (The author concludes) It has always seemed fitting to me that the pink candle is the candle of joy, the one that speaks to us with its twinge of color.
So there you have it. The pink candle, ultimately, is about joy to be found in the season of Advent: the joy to be remembered during periods of reflection, the joy promised in the hope of new birth, the joy found in the life of Jesus, and even the joy to be found of God’s stirring in the world.
This morning, hear Jesus’ joyous news: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (from this morning's Gospel, Matthew 11:2-11)