May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13
The season of Advent, the first season of the church year, began this past Sunday, November 28. The season of Advent encompasses the four Sundays and weekdays leading up to the celebration of Christmas. Advent is the season of preparation as we open our hearts and minds to embrace anew the meaning of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea.
As we enter into Advent or any church season, we are called to meditate on the meaning of the season and apply our findings to our lives. In Lent, for example, I realize as I meditate on Christ’s amazing patience in the face of persecution and betrayal, that I am not a patient person. Staying true to my meditation and the intention of Lent, I would then need to commit myself to cultivating patience. More often than not, to initiate change in our lives we require special tools and a break in the regular pattern of life. Advent is the change in the pattern and the tools of change are the images of Scripture, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the depth of my relationship with Christ, the practices of the church, and my willingness to grow and change.
One very meaningful symbol (tool) of Advent, to help with this process of growth and spiritual development is the Advent Wreath. The use of the wreath and candles during Advent is a longstanding Christian tradition originally adopted by Christians in the Middle Ages as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. The wreath and candles are full of symbolism tied to the Christmas season. The wreath itself, a ring of various evergreens, signifies continuous life. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life we find in Christ.
Even the individual evergreens that may make up the wreath have their own meanings on which we can draw significance. The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering. The pine, holly, and yew signify immortality and the cedar signifies strength and healing. The pine cones that decorate the wreath symbolize life and resurrection. The wreath as a whole is meant to remind us of both the immortality of our souls and of God’s promise of everlasting life through Christ.
The candles also have their own special significance. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent with one new candle lit each Sunday. At present in our parish, all four candles are royal blue. Royal Blue is the color of royalty to welcome the coming of a King. It also symbolizes the vast night sky filled with stars, yet punctuated by a new star to herald in the new creation. If you’ve ever seen an authentically painted ceiling in one of the French medieval churches (The Cathedral at Chartres or la Sainte Chapelle come to mind), then the vibrant blue is even punctuated with gold stars. The color further symbolizes the waters of Genesis 1, over which the Holy Spirit moved and the Word spoke all things into being. Aren’t we blessed to have this extra meaningful color behind our altar at Advent this year?
The first candle symbolizes hope. It is sometimes called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. It represents the expectation and anticipation of the coming Messiah.
The second candle represents faith and love. It is called the “Bethlehem Candle” as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
The third candle symbolizes joy. It is called the “Shepherd’s Candle,” and may be rose-colored because rose is a liturgical color for joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of Advent.
On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final blue candle to mark the final week of prayer and anticipation as we wait for the birth of our Savior. This final candle, the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes peace. It reminds us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
On Christmas Eve, the candle at the center of the wreath is lit. This candle is white and is called the “Christ Candle.” White represents the life of Christ, pure and holy because Christ is our sinless, pure Savior.
The light of the flickering candle flames reminds us who Jesus is: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all human kind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5).
Far from simply a decoration or a simple liturgical tradition, the Advent Wreath is a tool designed to dig us out of our ‘comfortable state’. This year, in Church and at home, meditate on the wreath—all the parts of the wreath. Allow God to illumine your heart and brighten your soul with hope, love, joy, and peace, so that the symbolism of the wreath will lead you into a deeper understanding and love of our incarnate Lord.
Hope in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†