I discovered, as I was making sure I had my facts straight about the third Sunday of Advent, that it's known as the "joyful Sunday." Not only that: tradition dictates that the candle itself is pink, in contrast to the others, which are usually purple. (Now you know!)
What's up with that? Why a pink candle? Here's the beautiful reason. The Advent season is a season of waiting and penitence—a bit like a mini-Lent. And so, three of the four candles are purple, which represents that penitential tone of the seasons.
Penitence is hard. It is hard to be reminded that we are fallible, imperfect, inclined to do evil. It's even harder to adopt the attitude of humility and brokenness about those fallen states we are in. It's difficult to be told that we are doing the right things for the wrong reasons, or to realize how selfishly we conduct our lives, or to see how limited we are in our own abilities. Being humbled is rough.
I don't know about you, but I feel like this has been a year of humbling for pretty much everyone. We have tricky economies to deal with. We have widespread unrest. We see our human inability to fix all the bad stuff. We work as hard as we can, but things never turn out as well as we want them to. And next year doesn't look a whole lot more promising.
Advent is a time in which we must make ourselves open to being humbled, to feeling our own limits. Three purple candles: three Sundays, one still to come, of serious humbling, of waiting.
But this is the interesting thing: God knows this is difficult. (Why? Well, he was here, too, and felt the limits of human existence and frailty.) He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. And so, we celebrate the third Sunday—the "joyful" Sunday—with a pink, celebratory candle. It's a bit like a Sabbath celebration in the middle of the penitent season. Many traditions encourage adherents to break their fasts on the Sabbath, even in the great penitential season (like Lent). I think of this as God's way of reminding us that we are not just slogging through a miserable existence because he asks us to. He wishes us to find joy here, now, as a taste of what we can expect—as a reminder of what we're waiting for.
This is the beauty of the rose candle. It is a beauty that reminds us that even when we are to be repenting, even when we must feel the limitations of our humanity, there is something bigger under us, holding us up, holding all things together. I've come to believe that we can only experience joy—we can only smile, and celebrate—when we know that the good things are a gift from the one who sees the bad and still tells us, rest, delight, be joyful.