THE ADVENT WREATH
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. After all, Christ is “the Light that came into the world” to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (John 3:19-21). By 1600, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.
The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolises the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul and the everlasting life found in Christ. All together, the wreath of evergreens depicts the immortality of our soul and the new, everlasting life promised to us through Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death and resurrection.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. A tradition is that each week represents one thousand years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the Birth of the Saviour.
Three candles are purple and one is rose. The purple candles in particular symbolise the prayer, penance and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas.
The progressive lighting of the candles is the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead. The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. The unlighted candles represent the dark ages before the coming of Christ. Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve.
In family practice, the Advent wreath is most appropriately lit at dinner time after the blessing of the food. A traditional prayer devotion using the Advent wreath proceeds as follows:
Today the First Sunday of Advent, the father of the family blesses the wreath, praying: O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Your blessing upon this wreath and grant that we, who use it, may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from You abundant graces. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” He then continues for each of the days of the first week of Advent: “O Lord, stir up Your might, we beg You and come, that by Your protection we may deserve to be rescued from the threatening dangers of our sins and saved by Your deliverance. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The youngest child then lights one purple candle.
During the second week of Advent, the father prays: “O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for Your only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve You with pure minds. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The oldest child then lights the purple candle from the first week plus one more purple candle.
During the third week of Advent, the father prays: “O Lord, we beg You, incline Your ear to our prayers and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of Your visitation. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The mother then lights the two previously lit purple candles plus the rose candle.
Finally, the father prays during the fourth week of Advent, “O Lord, stir up Your power, we pray You and come. With great might help us, that with the help of Your grace, Your merciful forgiveness may hasten what our sins impede. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The father then lights all of the candles of the wreath.
Since Advent is a time to reignite, refresh and renew our faith, the wreath and its prayers provide us a way to augment this special preparation for Christmas.
There are many beautiful booklets and prayers available to augment your Advent devotions with the family, which include short Scripture texts and Reflections – it is a lovely practice in Catholic families to nominate a different child and/or member of the family for each of the four weeks, to prepare and read these devotions. Moreover, this good tradition helps us to remain vigilant in our homes and not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas.
USING THE ADVENT WREATH DURING THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
Advent ends, of course, with Christmas Eve but that’s no reason to put the Advent wreath away. Many people add a large white candle to the centre of the wreath and light it, along with the other four, starting on Christmas and going all the way through Epiphany. It’s a good way to remind ourselves that Christ is the reason for the preparations we made during Advent and it also helps us remember that Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas morning after all the presents have been opened.
DAILY ADVENT PRAYER
Henri J M Nouwen
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send Your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces
to hear Your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things
look forward to Your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways
long for the complete joy of Your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy
seek the joy of Your presence.
We are Your people,
walking in darkness,
yet seeking the light.
To You we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”