Today, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, marks the beginning of Advent. This year Advent has its shortest possible duration. Why? Because in 2017 the last Sunday in Advent will fall on, Christmas Eve. On that day, the final purple candle of the Advent wreath will be lit, and later that night or the next morning, the white fifth candle announcing Christ’s birth will be added.
Whether in a home celebration, a church service, or in the public square, lighting the first purple candle of Advent marks the beginning of a quiet and reflective season, particularly when contrasted with the commercial way our culture celebrates Christmas. The use of an Advent wreath is a simple, but powerful, tradition—one shared by Western Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. It can be traced back to the Middle Ages. For that matter, the idea of marking the passing of time with a physical symbol is timeless. Our desire to do so lies deep in our hearts.
The wreath itself traditionally consists of a circle of evergreen branches, placed or wired together. Evergreens signify enduring life and are beloved for their fragrance. Of course, any frame for holding or arranging the candles can be used. These days, it’s common to see Advent wreaths made with all kinds of material (wood, metal, ceramic, acrylic) and configured into modern designs, including geometrical shapes. Our family uses an oval wreath that we acquired in the mid-1990s made of brass leaves into which I weave evergreen cuttings.
The candles, though, are the most important element. Within the wreath should stand three purple candles, lit on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Sundays. The fourth candle, traditionally rose-colored (pink), will be lit on the 3rd Sunday called Rejoicing Sunday (Gaudete). The progressive lighting of these candles signifies our joy at the coming of the Messiah. Finally, a white candle placed in the center (the Christ candle) is lit either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
You can find countless resources online showing how to make an Advent wreath. Some will propose other colors for the candles, omit the Christ candle, or come up with new designs. But if you’re observing Advent as preparation for the Nativity of Christ, we recommend sticking with the traditional shapes and colors if at all possible. In fact, in all of the essays in this calendar, the focus will be on the value of traditions—learning them and keeping them.
Each time we set up an Advent wreath, sing the songs, tell the stories, and look at the beautiful images, we are recreating precious traditions using the arts. The arts give us tangible ways to pass traditions on to our children. The arts remind us of the spiritual power behind the traditions, and of the reasons our ancestors kept these traditions.
So remember, Advent is not about the wreath itself. Nor is it about the color of the candles. If you cannot start today, the candles can still be lit as soon as you’re able. The message of Advent only grows stronger as the days proceed. The wreath and the sequential lighting of candles serve as outward symbols to help move us through Advent in a purposeful and orderly way. They ensure a regular opportunity to focus on, and guide our families through, this reflective season anticipating Christ’s birth. May our daily essays be a blessing as you begin that journey.
The First Candle
If you are lighting the first candle in a home, traditionally the father blesses it with a prayer, after which the youngest child lights the first candle. (Other family members have roles to play in the weeks to come.)
You may wish to employ a prayer like these.
O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.
God of Love, Your son, Jesus, is your greatest gift to us. He is a sign of your love. Help us walk in that love during the weeks of Advent, as we wait and prepare for his coming. We pray in the name of Jesus, our Savior. Amen.
The lighting of the candle and a prayer can be followed by a reading, such as Isaiah 2:1-5. Or you may you may ask someone present to offer a personal meditation or sing together a song or hymn. Most importantly, within a very few minutes, you and your family have officially, and concretely, begun a precious journey through Advent.
Image: Kittelendan (CC BY-SA 3.0)