It is exactly one month to Christmas day! Prepare to deck the halls, play the carols, and prepare the hampers because Christmas is coming to town once more. It may seem like it’s way too soon to be talking about trees and lights and presents and carols and all that. But Christmas is the culmination of Advent, and Advent is about to start.
The word “advent” comes from the Latin “adventus” meaning “arrival” or “coming,” particularly of something having great importance. Advent is the time for the spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas. In the Latin Church, the season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, or the Sunday which falls closest to November 30, and lasts through Christmas Eve, or December 24. This year advent begins on the 29th of November.
What is Advent really all about?
It is very easy to feel out of sync with Advent. Slow down? Don’t set up and light the tree? Don’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas? How can one avoid all the shopping and gift-buying? It seems totally unrealistic, even Grinch-like. But the Church is right – Advent is about slowing down. It’s about a world in darkness yearning for light and warmth. It’s about stepping back from the crazy pace of our lives – even if it is just for a few minutes – to think of how the world is and how we dream it could be as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, wait for his coming again in glory, and, in between, remember all the ways we encounter him every day.
If we lived in a monastery, we might be able to devote every waking moment to prayer and ritual. But Advent is for busy people with work and school schedules, too. There are many small ways to enter into Advent and to let it grow in our hearts and enrich whatever else we do in this season. The advent wreath is one of them. Celebrating with an Advent wreath during the weeks prior to Christmas is a great way for Christian families to keep Christ at the center of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.
The four Sundays
The Advent wreath is a circular garland of evergreen branches representing eternity. On that wreath,five candles are typically arranged. During the season of Advent one candle on the wreath is lit each Sunday as a part of the Advent services. Each candle represents an aspect of the spiritual preparation for the coming of the Lord, Jesus Christ.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the first purple candle is lit. This candle is typically called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, primarily Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. This candle represents hope or expectation in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
On the second Sunday of Advent, the second purple candle is lit. This candle typically represents love. Some traditions call this the “Bethlehem Candle,” symbolizing Christ’s manger. On the third Sunday of Advent (the ‘rejoice’ Sunday)the pink, or rose-colored candle is lit. This pink candle is customarily called the “Shepherds Candle” and it represents joy.
The fourth and last purple candle, oftentimes called the “Angels Candle,” represents peace and is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. On Christmas Eve, the white center candle (which is optional) is traditionally lit. This candle is called the “Christ Candle” and represents the life of Christ that has come into the world. The color white represents purity. Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Savior. Also, those who receive Christ as Savior are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow. As the candles are lit, advent songs are sung and bible passages can be read.
We cannot hope to reverse the commercial hijacking and premature celebration of Christmas which has played a major role in the near demise of Advent, so we should not waste our time trying. What we can do is rededicate ourselves to the observance of Advent in our churches and in our homes. Through the years the Church has developed many resources for this, so we do not need to reinvent Advent. We just need to rediscover it.
O come, O come Emmanuel…