An Advent Wreath is composed of four candles which are placed an equal distance apart in a flat, circular wreath. Normally the wreath is decorated with branches from an evergreen tree, but in the interest of fire prevention, it has become increasingly common to use artificial greens. The Advent Wreath is normally put in a prominent place, in church in the sanctuary, or at home on a flat table in the middle of the family room or the center of the dinner table.
Three of the candles, the ones used for the first, second and fourth weeks, are blue, purple, or violet; while the candle for the third week is rose. Violet symbolizes remorse for sins and penance, and purple is a sign of royalty. Blue or violet with a blue hue is used to differentiate Advent from Lent, and they symbolize patient waiting. Rose stands for joy, and it is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, to represent joyful anticipation: delight that Advent is half over, merriment that Christmas is so near.
The Advent Wreath has additional layers of symbolism. The wreath is a circle, and because it has no beginning or end it signifies infinity or eternity, a sign that God’s love for us has no beginning or end, that God loves us all the time. The first candle stands for hope, the second for faith, the third for joy, and the fourth for peace.
One candle is lit per week. The first candle is lit on Sunday, and the same candle is relit each day for the remainder of Week One. Then, on the Second Sunday of Advent, a second candle is added, and the first and second candles are both relit the rest of the week. It is customary to offer at prayer at candle-lighting time, often when everyone is gathered around the table before the evening meal. In some localities there is a family tradition about who is supposed to light the candle: the youngest child for the first week, the oldest child for the second, the mother for the third, and the father for the fourth.
The primary symbol of the Advent Wreath is the candle’s shining light. December is a month of increasing darkness, a season when the days get shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches on December 21 or 22, the shortest, darkest day of the year. Emotionally, darkness is associated with sadness and depression, while spiritually darkness is associated with sin, evil, and the absence of God.
Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 12:46), “the light of the human race” (Jn 1:4). As the darkness outside deepens, more and more candles are lit to crowd out the darkness, and then on Christmas, one of the shortest days of the year, at midnight, when the darkness is most intense, Jesus, the Light of the World, is born, the glory of the Lord has shone, “the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not [and will not] overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2005, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.