Why an Advent Wreath?
The symbolism of Advent is light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. At his second coming, all mankind will be enlightened, i.e., know that Jesus, the Christ, is the Son of God. He will be the center and light of the new earth. Jesus gives light to each of us as he lives in our person. At his birth, the light of night stars shined in the sky over Bethlehem. The Magi following the light of a star from Persia to Bethlehem. Advent is four weeks of delightful anticipation as we wait to celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem.
Often, Christians express basic tenets of faith in symbols. In Christian churches the Advent wreath is the primary symbol of light during the four Sundays of Advent. An Advent wreath is made from evergreens shaped into a circle to signify eternal (never ending) life. Evergreens tree branches used as the base of the candle can be the spruce, holly, laurel, cypress, and pine, or any mix of these branches. Evergreen boughs, rather than deciduous tree branches which drop leaves and appear dead in winter months, are used to symbolize that Jesus is alive eternally and that we are alive eternally in Jesus.
Four candles are spaced equidistant around the evergreen wreath. Traditionally, three of these candles are blue or purple to match the liturgical colors. The other candle is rose-colored. Various churches and denominations have assigned meaning to the four candles. Generally, a blue candle is lit the first Sunday of Advent. This candle is labeled the candle of Prophecy because God’s prophets foretold both the coming of a baby and the judge of the world. On the second Sunday of Advent, a second blue candle is lit. This candle is labeled the candle of Preparation. This candle symbolizes that we must prepare, even change, some parts of our lives to welcome the coming Jesus.
The third Sunday of Advent is named Gaudete Sunday. On this Sunday, the rose candle is lit. In Latin, gaudete means “rejoice” and is the first word of the traditional prayer “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4 NIV). The faithful rejoice because they have arrived at the midpoint of Advent. From this point onward, congregates are joyful over the anticipated birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. In some churches, altar colors and ministers’ vestments are rose colored on Gaudete Sunday.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final blue candle is lit. It is identified as the candle of Love. We remember that God loved humankind so much that he planned for Jesus to be born as a fully-human baby. Saint John described Jesus’ light and love this way, “In him (Christ) was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4 NIV). “For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16 NIV).
Several traditions have evolved around the Advent candle. One is that each of the four candles represents 1,000 years, the sum of the years from Adam and Eve until Jesus’ birth. Another tradition is that the progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope that surrounds Jesus’ first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead. A modern-day adaption of the Advent wreath is a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath. Often this candle is broader (greater diameter) than the four weekly candles. It is lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning to represent Jesus’ birth. To further enhance its beauty, the Advent wreath can be decorated with pine cones and cinnamon (or cassia) sticks.
Although the Advent Wreath is a symbol of waiting for Jesus’ first birth, the history of the Advent Wreath was pre-Christian northern Europe. People sought to hasten the sun’s return in the darker times of the year (at the winter solstice) by lighting candles and fires. In Scandinavian countries where night reined during winter months, lighted candles were placed around a wheel. People prayed to the god of light to turn the wheel of earth so that light was restored, and days became warmer.
By 1500, both Catholics and Lutherans integrated Advent Candles (fire and light) into traditional preparation for Christmas. Often these traditions focused on Jesus’ birth rather than his second coming. To Christians of the Middle Ages, Jesus, the Light of the World, came to dispel the darkness of sin. By the beginning of the 19th century, on most Advent wreaths three candles were blue (purple) and one a rose color.
Copyright 11/17/2020, Carolyn Adams Roth