Wreath on fire

“…may the righteous flourish;
  and let there be an abundance of peace” (Psalm 72:7)

audio for sermon ‘Wreath on fire” by Martin Malina

The season of Advent was always a big deal at our home, growing up. I remember looking forward every year to Advent—the season of candles, wreaths, waiting and anticipating Christmas coming.

Fire transparent, Fire contained, Fire reflected (photo by Martin Malina, 2022)

On our wooden coffee table in the middle of the living room we would place a large wreath with real pine boughs intertwining four, tall candles. Of course, these candles were a lot shorter by the time the fourth week of Advent rolled around having lighted them every day. And the pine boughs had gotten quite dry. The needles were falling off.

It was during the last week of Advent one year when, after lighting all four candles, my mother, brother and I had to go into another room for a short time. When the fire alarm went off, at first I couldn’t think of what it could be. But then the awareness struck all of us suddenly and we dashed back into the living room.

The whole wreath was consumed in a gigantic plume of fire and smoke reaching up to the ceiling. Thank God for the water nearby that saved us. But the coffee table was damaged and had to be re-finished. 

John the Baptist warns the religious leaders of the day, in today’s Gospel reading, that the one who is coming will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire”.[1] The advent wreath on fire appeared unquenchable, believe you me! 

Today we light the candle of Peace on the wreath. The biblical word for peace is ‘shalom’. What does ‘shalom’—the peace of God—mean?

The advent wreath on fire wasn’t a calming vision of peace, one that we normally seek at this time of year. We may not expect and may not want to read a passage from the bible these days that paints disturbing images about the coming Christ. 

I am drawn, rather, to focus on the “small, intimate comforts of mangers, fireplaces and hot chocolates.”[2] I would rather my advent wreath not explode in a plume of unquenchable fire. I want to see the soft, flickering light, snuggled up with a blanket and a good book on the couch. I don’t think I’m alone in seeking a reality closer to Hallmark images of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

Yet, a world already awash in the soft glow of Christmas, this Sunday’s gospel jarringly redirects our focus. The Gospel presents a dirty and smelly John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and screaming threats at the religious leaders visiting him in the wilderness. Where is the good news in this?

Before we skip over John the Baptist in our rush to get all cushy with Christmas, let’s pause for a moment. And consider this: While only two of the four gospels talk about Jesus’ birth, all four tell about John the Baptist. So, there’s something here we need to pay attention to. We need to ponder who this man was and why his story is vital to our Advent journey.

Ancient wisdom for people of faith warned against what was called a “pernicious peace.” One of self-indulgence, self-absorption and self-preoccupation with being comfortable. A peace that ultimately does not satisfy. In fact, too much of this spelled a dangerous escape from reality—a pernicious peace.

What do you notice first about John the Baptist? I’m drawn to the wild honey image. I love honey. But I must confess I associate the pleasure and benefit of honey with an early childhood image that has stayed with me—Winnie the Pooh. But this childhood warm-fuzzy image must be revised. Because it doesn’t square with the reality of the honeybee and its grittier, larger truth.

In her Advent devotional, Gayle Boss describes how bees survive winter. They cluster together and shiver their wing muscles in a carefully arranged dance to keep the queen and the honey at the center of the hive warm. 

Some bees are even born to know only this long, cold season of life: “They will know only the dark hive,” Gayle Boss writes, “the press of their sisters’ bodies …They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.”[3]

There’s a constant movement, not easily perceptible to us humans in the formation of honey and the beehive. There’s movement, a community that endures difficulty and toil during the dark winter. Yet in the toil, there is hope for the future. And this is the ongoing work we give during Advent.

What marks the beginning of the Communion part of the service? Technically – what do we say, responsively in the liturgy, every week when we have Communion? And when there isn’t Communion, we don’t say it. In other words, what words and gesture launch us into Holy Communion?

We share the Peace. Sharing the Peace at the beginning of the Communion. Sharing the Peace is an action towards and with one another. Then, in our tradition, we come forward. We move our bodies on the way to the altar to receive the gift.

Peace is not a state of being, but a movement. Like the bees shivering their wings to keep the queen and honey warm. Peace is a movement, ongoing. A path. A way of peace. This is the shalom of the bible. 

The Hebrew concept of peace was described as peace between God, the people, and the environment. When we share the peace of Christ at the beginning of the Holy Communion, “we are calling for this shalom to be present in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world. Shalom [therefore] means hospitality and welcoming the stranger in our midst.” And after the Eucharist—the Holy Communion— “we go forth as agents of reconciliation, carrying the peace of Christ with us.”[4] Even and especially when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our lives.

So, what is your “wilderness”? Is it a physical suffering? Is it dealing with mental illness, an emotional pain, an addiction, sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, shame? Is your wilderness the loneliness of the season, the feeling of abandonment, isolation? What is your wilderness?

We all likely have a few advent wreaths on fire, figuratively speaking, somewhere in our lives. And we may feel like all we are doing is trying to put out all those fires. But John the Baptist warns the religious leaders, even suggesting that the “wrath to come” is not something from which to “flee”. Repentance is not escaping into a Hallmark world of denial and avoidance. True repentance is about facing the wrath, the wilderness, the suffering in faith and hope. 

God takes the lead. God comes to be with us in our wilderness wandering. Jesus is the Living Water[5]that saves us. Jesus chose to go to where John the Baptist was—into the wilderness of his life, to be baptized. God chooses to go there—into the wilderness of our lives—to bring healing and wholeness.

This is wonderful news! God doesn’t flee from the wilderness. It is the place where God’s presence is experienced. This is the path of peace. It’s a journey. May we find our nourishment and strength moving toward the goal on this winding path.


[1] Matthew 3:1-12

[2] Donna Lynn Gartshore, “Where did you go?” Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 29 November 2022)

[3] Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginning (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016), p.15–16.

[4] Donald W. Johnson and Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), p.160.

[5] John 4:13

Why? Why not?

Blue as the sky is blue” (Kioshkokwi Lake, 5 September 2022, photo by Martin Malina)
audio for sermon “Why? Why not?” by Martin Malina

Why Why Why? More questions come out of the reading of the Gospel than anything. When the lectionary group met online earlier this week to reflect on the Gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent[1], most of the initial responses were questions: “What does this mean?” “What are we to do?” “How am I awake?” “When are we asleep?” Lots of questions.

When my children were young, they drove me crazy whenever they would drill down any line of reasoning with ‘why’. 

“Why do I have to go to the dentist?” “Because your teeth need to be cleaned.” “Why do they have to be cleaned by a dentist?” “Because they have machines that can clean in a way you can’t” “Why don’t we just get those machines for ourselves?” “Because they are expensive and only dentists can get them.” And on and on and on. “Why?” It can be an annoying question.

But my sense these days is that we have to go there especially if we want to communicate our faith effectively. We have to address those more fundamental questions—but not first with established doctrines or beliefs. Rather, it is best to begin addressing questions of faith with our personal experience of faith, in an honest, genuine, heart-felt way.

Advent inaugurates a season of hope. As blue as the sky is blue, blue is the colour of hope. In the Gospel, we are called to keep watch, pay attention, and be vigilant. But in this era of pandemic economic and social depression, perhaps a more fundamental question is “Why?” Why should folks bother keeping awake when hope is scarce, when everything—as they say—is broken? What is the point of paying attention and keeping watch for the coming Messiah? Why bother, in the first place?

Hope in gospel faith is not just a vague feeling that things will work out, for it is evident that things will not just work out. Hope in gospel faith is also not some romantic or ideological notion of private preference detached from reality. Rather, hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is persistent in overcoming the deathliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace.[2]

Yet, this ‘perfect fullness’ is always to come, over the horizon. And we do not need to demand it now. Why? The virtue of hope keeps the field of life wide open. Hope in gospel faith is especially open to grace, and to a future created by God rather than us. God is always up to something. 

And we’re always on the lookout for where and what is going on with God. This is exactly what it means to be “awake,” as the Gospel urges us! We can also use other words for Advent: aware, alive, attentive, alert are all appropriate.[3]

It’s not all warm fuzzies. To pay attention to the grace of God and to a future created by God rather than us, costs us something. We have to work at it. Faith is a practice that needs exercise. So, what at the beginning of this new church year and at the advent of God’s future, what can we practice that will curate hope in our hearts? 

To begin with, we can learn to be grateful for what we have. We can foster an attitude of gratitude. This may be a tall order, especially in a context of doom-and-gloom. These apocalyptic themes we touch on in our bible reading during Advent can easily generate in us fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking. But we need to hold such a response in check. A person cannot exist in a place of fear and true gratitude at the same time.[4]

As they rebuild Jerusalem following their exile, as they return to a land and city once devastated by war and dislocation, why do the returning Israelites feel they can go up to Jerusalem with joy? Why are they glad to go to the house of the Lord? 

Because they go, first and foremost, to give thanks. “Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord … to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”[5]

Gratitude moves stagnant energy when we’re feeling stuck in life. Gratitude debunks and moves us out of the mistaken belief that everything is broken. The simple act of practicing gratitude disrupts negative thoughts and changes our mindset to see the world in a positive way. Not only are we more attractive to others when we live in gratitude, but the most ordinary things can become extraordinary, creating a fuller, more beautiful expression of our life.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.” Gratitude is the foundation of that adage. It means that our mindset has to be that God is conspiring and working in everyone’s favour. Do we perceive how?

Frequently, when something that we perceive as “bad” happens to us, we let it affect us in a highly negative way. But if we interact with the world from a place of gratitude, when something happens that others may perceive as “bad,” we can be curious about why something happens the way it does. And in expressing that curiosity we’re actively seeking the part of the experience that we’re grateful for.  

Holy Communion is also called ‘The Great Thanksgiving’ based on the Greek word “Eucharist”, which means ‘thanksgiving. Embracing the holy mystery surrounding Holy Communion doesn’t mean we fully understand what’s going on here. By being curious and asking why we celebrate the Eucharist, we don’t pretend we can always figure it out completely. We can’t. We’re not God.

Being thankful means, we trust that God will complete the sentence. And God will one day place the period at the end of the sentence when the last word on our lives and the world is said and done. So, what do we do in the Eucharist? In the meantime? In the Holy Communion we practice the presence of Christ. We practice presence. We practice being awake, paying attention, to what good God is doing now, however small, in this place and at this time, in our lives.

And when we perceive it, we give thanks. We practice being grateful.

As a child I probably was one of those kids who annoyingly asked “Why” a lot. I could remember when I was a little bit older my dad had the best response to my “Why”. When the questions got a little bit more complex and abstract, he responded to me with: “Why not?”

This may very well be the best question about faith, hope, God—in anxious and fearful times. Not to shut down conversation. But exactly the opposite—to widen the field of possibility. Why not? To faith, to hope, to a good God who loves us all – Why not?


[1] Matthew 24:36-44

[2] Walter Brueggemann cited in Richard Rohr, “The Theological Virtue of Hope” Mystical Hope (www.cac.org, Daily Meditations, 5 Dec 2021) .

[3] Richard Rohr, ibid.

[4] Doug Good Feather, Think Indigenous: Native American Spirituality for a Modern World, transcribed by Doug Red Hail Pineda (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2021), 27, 30, 31.

[5] Psalm 122:4 (NRSV)