What is Advent?

Straight Talk

The Question

My church is lighting an Advent wreath each Sunday but there is no explanation for what is going on. I did not grow up in church and don’t know what an Advent wreath is but it appears everyone else understands. I feel foolish to ask anyone; can you please tell me?

– Adrianne from Charleston, WV

The Answer
Part 1: Liturgical Rites
Part 2: The Advent Wreath

Liturgical Rites (Part 1)

Yes, I would be glad to help you. I grew up in a “liturgical” church where we used Advent wreaths both at home and within the formal church setting. Even though I am in a different style of church now, I am so glad I had that background with its very rich tradition.

First let me explain that a “liturgical” church is one that follows a formalized set of rituals or “rites” throughout the calendar year. In a way you can think of it as an emphasis of “themes” surrounding the life of Christ. Each season or theme expresses some aspect of the ministry of Jesus as he lived here on earth. The purpose of celebrating them is to meditate on the life of our Lord and deepen our Christian walk.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival” and is observed on the four Sundays before Christmas anticipating the birth of the Messiah. As the congregation remembers back to the First Advent (Jesus’ birth) there should also be some hint of the fact that we are still waiting for the Second Advent (Jesus’ return or Second Coming).

The main color of Advent is purple which represents royalty. Remember that the wise men from the East, “when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11) Jesus came from royal lineage – the house of King David, through both his natural mother Mary and his foster father Joseph.

Why are “four” Sundays chosen to celebrate the Advent season? I don’t know if anyone knows for certain, especially because different churches built up different traditions and many of these go back more than a thousand years. One explanation is that the four weeks represent the four hundred silent years prior to the coming of Christ. That sounds like a good reason to me.

Next: Okay, what about the wreath itself?

The Advent Wreath (Part 2)

The wreath consists of a circle of evergreens with four candles set into it spaced evenly and a fifth candle in the middle. The circular shape of the wreath is a reminder that God’s love and his mercy are endless. The greenery is a symbol of hope.

Usually there are three purple candles and one that is pink or rose colored. The pink candle is normally lit on the third Sunday of Advent and expresses a joy and anticipation that can hardly contain itself until the baby is born. It is on Christmas Day that the center white “Christ candle” is finally lit.

At the lighting of each candle there are usually prescribed scriptures that are read which are reminders of the prophecies about the coming Messiah. Additionally, depending on the church, certain prayers are said. The thoughts presented at the lighting ceremony should carry throughout the week. Each week, the previous candles are lit along with the new candle.

Advent wreaths can be easily made and used at home and are a wonderful way to teach children about the Incarnation – God made man. Stories from the Old Testament can be told explaining how the Israelites were waiting for the coming King. Christmas Day is much more spiritually significant if Advent is used as preparation. If celebrated at home, the candles can be lit every day at meal time. It is wonderful to build family devotional times around the Advent wreath.

Over the centuries, in many church traditions, the Advent message has been diminished where it has become a rote ritual. Perhaps that is what has happened in your church which no longer even explains what the Advent wreath is all about. It does not have to be that way. Seasons such as Advent and symbols such as the Advent wreath can remain fresh if we ask the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into our traditions.

Have a wonderful Advent and a holy and happy Christmas!