Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 8, 2003
What is an Advent wreath?
SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
When I was growing up, I never heard of Advent wreaths. Where did they come from and what is their meaning?
Advent wreaths have a long history although they weren't common in our part of the world until the mid-1900s. When we realized their powerful symbolism, we readily adopted them.
Although the origin of Advent wreaths is somewhat obscure, it seems that in pre-Christian times, the Germanic countries used wreaths or wheels around which they placed candles to give both warmth and light to a world grown dark in the dead of winter, as well as a symbol of hope in the sun which would soon bring back its heat and light. I think we in this northern clime can understand the need for warmth and hope in the midst of long, dark nights.
Because of its possibility to reinforce the faith, by the Middle Ages, this custom was adapted by Christians to represent Christ the light of the world. A number of aspects of the Advent wreath can speak to us. Let me just explore a few suggestions.
The circular shape of the wreath can symbolize several truths of our faith. It can remind us that God is eternal, that God's love and mercy are endless and that our lives are immortal, enabling us to enjoy eternal life in Christ after our earthly death.
Evergreens remain green all year round and so are a wonderful symbol of vibrant life. Hildegarde, a 13th century mystic, frequently referred to God as "greenness" since so much of nature, when it is fully in life, is green. And even in the Church's liturgy, green, which we use in Ordinary Time, that is, much of the year, represents hope, especially hope in eternal life.
Traditionally, evergreens, in themselves, have been given special meanings. Laurel wreaths were used for crowning victorious individuals in sporting events. Cedar personified strength. And holly's symbolism is even stronger as the prickly leaves remind us of Jesus' crown of thorns and the red berries of the drops of Christ's blood.
For Christians, therefore, the wreath made from evergreen can depict strength and victory over sin and suffering, as well as reminding us that Christmas eventually points to Christ's suffering and death. A powerful reminder of this truth was on a card that showed a beautiful Christmas tree on its first panel followed by the tree losing its needles until the fifth panel showed the tree with only its main upright trunk and a crossbar.
But our wreath doesn't forget the new life of the resurrection, as depicted by the pinecones and nuts often added to the wreath, for it is from these seeds that new life springs.
It is good to make our own Advent wreaths and use evergreen branches. Even if we buy commercial ones, every time we look at the wreath, it can remind us of the eternal life which the blessed in heaven enjoy with God and which we hope someday to enjoy. Therefore, the Advent wreath can serve as a reminder to pray for deceased members of our families.
Of course, the candles are the most important aspect of the symbolism because both at Christmas and Easter, the light-of-Christ-come-into-the-world is made manifest by candles and lights. Each week as we light more candles and create more light we become aware that Christ's light is growing ever stronger in us and through us to others. We are also reminded that we await the Second Coming of Christ when that light will fill our world and reconcile "the whole creation which has been groaning in labour pains until now" (Romans 8:22).
The four candles can be taken to signify the 4,000 years God's people waited for the coming of the Messiah. Sometimes, a fifth candle is placed in the centre, representing Christ and the purple candles are changed to white. In this case, the Advent wreath continues to be lighted during the Christmas season.
Even more meaning can be conveyed by assigning significance to each candle. We already do this by using a rose candle for the third week of Advent. This is Gaudete Sunday: "Rejoice in the Lord always; The Lord is near" (Philippians 4: 4-5) from the Opening Prayer of the Mass reminds us to rejoice since Christ's coming is very close.
Assigning peace to the first candle, with its lighting, we can pray for peace in our needy world. The second candle can represent trust, the third joy and the fourth love with a prayer for these special graces each week.
On the other hand, some like to designate events for each candle. That is a good idea, especially when there are children. Any meaningful events can be used.
The first candle can represent the prophets who foretold the coming of the messiah, while the second can be the journey to Bethlehem. The third could be the angels who knew what had come about and brought the message to earth. The fourth could be the shepherds, simple and ordinary people who first heard the angels' announcement and who hurried to see the Christ-child.
Or one could use the prophets who revealed the coming of Christ and then Jesus' visitors: the angels, shepherds and wise men. In our home celebrations we can use creativity in choosing other aspects which would allow a more valuable way of celebrating this ritual. Perhaps in our churches, too, we could talk about some of the symbolism or add a few words of explanation. May the Advent wreath in our churches and homes provide a daily reminder of the significance of this season and an opportunity of experiencing a creative and prayerful Advent and holier and more meaningful Christmas.
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