An Old Tradition with a New Twist

Outside the church, this Christmas season began for many on Thanksgiving Day at 8 p.m. when major stores began their Black Friday sales. Here at Yahbut: AL  I wrote about rebelling against the unmitigated display of commercialism and greed by staying home. My family did that - well, the boys took their grandfather to a national park, but they didn't go shopping. My mom and I, on the other hand, stayed home and made Christmas presents while Mike did stuff around the house. Making presents on Black Friday was a lot more fun and relaxing than going to the store to wade through hordes of people.

In light of my rebellion and because I'm focusing my devotional time on the daily lectionary, our family began a new tradition this year. We fashioned an Advent wreath. On December 2, when the church at large began its Advent celebration, we lit a candle just before eating our Sunday meal. Many churches have advent wreaths in the sanctuary. They light a candle on each of the four Sundays before Christmas and read a little about what it means.

Here is a picture of ours:

Well, I must confess, it's more like an Advent number line but we still have the candles.

Not being Catholic and having grown up in a lower Protestant denomination, Advent wreaths were not part of my heritage. In our church, these wreaths emerged as part of Christmas celebrations sometime in the early 1990s so I had very little understanding of their symbolism. As a result, when I bought my candles at IKEA, I purchased four purple candles and a white candle. I also bought a porcelain rectangular platter upon which to place them - thus, the number line analogy. This is better for my table, actually, rather than having a wreath. So, I'll probably get some evergreen and place it on the platter in order to represent eternity. That's what I get for not doing my research before buying, but this is what I'll stick with for now.

No one really knows the origin of the advent wreath, but traditional sources say that it stems from Germany. The Catholic Education Resource Center has this on their website:

There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.

In the Middle Ages, Christians adapted this tradition for their own use. Christians made "Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. After all, Christ is 'the Light that came into the world' to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. John 3:19-21). By 1600, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath," according to the Catholic Education Resource Center (see above link).

Advent wreaths are circular to represent eternity (Well, mine is straight, but a number line goes on into infinity so I guess my family is okay there). They are usually decorated with evergreens in order to represent life and resurrection. The candles - three purple, one rose - represent the four weeks of Advent. I have four purple candles because Ikea did not have rose-colored candles.

The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday ... (which) is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead.

Later adaptations included a white candle placed in the center of the wreath. This candle, often called the Christ Candle, represents Jesus and is traditionally lit on Christmas Eve.

On Sunday, when our family gathered to watch the Broncos beat Tampa Bay and win the AFC West (yea!), before dinner I told them a little about the Advent, uh, number line, and talked about the joy of Christmas. Because of our culture, I told them, we think of Christmas as a time for giving gifts, but really the gifts are symbols of what the wisemen gave to Jesus. More importantly, they also represent Jesus, God's greatest gift to us. The word Advent means 'coming' and so this Christmas season our candles, which represent the light of Christ, will help us wait for his coming. According to my research, I don't think this was actually the emphasis for the first Sunday, but this is what I felt led to do.

We then lit the candle and Mike prayed this prayer that we found on the Catholic News Agency website. On the website the prayer is divided into two parts. We combined the two.

Let us pray that we may take Christ's coming seriously.
All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Lord God, I sense your power, your might and I stand in awe, painfully aware of how poor and weak I am before you.
As I begin this Advent journey, teach me to turn to you in my fear and sorrow.
I don't want to keep making my heart hard against you turning a deaf ear to your invitation.
Only you can help me to soften, to be like the clay in your gentle potter's hands.

I plan to write more on Advent this season. It turns out that there is a lot of information on this celebration. May you have a happy Advent as you prepare your hearts for Christ's coming.