Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Signs, Symbols and Traditions of the Season: Advent Wreath

One of the most prominent symbols of Advent is the Advent Wreath. Many Catholics do not realize that the Advent Wreath is a Lutheran devotion dating back to the 16th century. Most scholars agree that Latin Rite Catholics in Germany only adopted this devotion in the 1920s which began to spread here in North America in the 1930s (even among Lutherans)[1].

Ad lima with Taiwanese bishops.

A typical wreath is constructed in a circle symbolizing the eternity and unity of the Godhead.  Evergreens from antiquity have been a symbol of eternal life. Another variation is a circle of holly that includes the symbolism found in the evergreen but adds the symbolism of the passion (My family prefers this version). There are four candles which in one tradition suggests that each week represents one thousand years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the birth of the Savior. The candles are typically purple with one rose or pink candle. It is not uncommon in Germany and Protestant churches to have four red candles (Incidentally, the Holy Father uses red – chalking that up to his Germanic roots). The color purple is a symbol of royalty and consequently, a symbol of Christ the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The Rose (which really looks pink) is lit on the third Sunday of Advent known as Guadete Sunday. Guadete Sunday gets its name from the first word (Guadete or Rejoice!) of the Introit at Mass that Sunday.[2] Additionally, many include a white “Christ” candle in the middle that is lit on the Feast of the Incarnation.

Some have equated a symbol for each of the candles. The first is called the prophet’s candle associating the hope of their divine oracles with Jesus’ coming – both the Incarnation and the Second coming. The second is named the Bethlehem candle honoring the great Davidic city in which the Savior was born. The third is the shepherds’ candle for those human beings who worshiped first the new-born King. The fourth candle is named the angels’ candle symbolizing the angelic proclamation to the shepherds on the night of the Savior’s birth.

The Church recognizes the place of the Advent Wreath in our popular devotion. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy Principles and Guidelines says in paragraph 98:

Placing four candles on green fronds has become a symbol of Advent in many Christian home, especially in the Germanic countries and in North America.

The Advent wreath, with the progressive lighting of its four candles, Sunday after Sunday, until the Solemnity of Christmas, is a recollection of the various stages of salvation history prior to Christ’s coming and a symbol of the prophetic light gradually illuminating the long night prior to the rising of the Sun of justice (cf. Ml 3,20; Lk 1,78).

The Advent Wreath is a visible marker of the spiritual exercises that all Christians enter into during the Advent Season. These spiritual exercises in the US usually take place at dinner when a candle is lit in conjunction with a reading from Scripture with a short meditation following.

The central theme of Advent is about expectation or waiting. It is reminiscent of the prophet Elijah waiting to hear the voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:11-12) and the admonitions of prophet Zephaniah,

Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. (Zephaniah 1:7)

and Zechariah,

Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)

It is this posture that the Church encourages us during this season. The Holy Father, yesterday, during his midday address, spoke on this subject:

I’d like to dwell briefly on this suggestive theme of “waiting,” as it speaks to a profoundly human aspect, in which faith becomes, so to say, one with our flesh and our hearts.

Waiting — standing by — is a dimension that crosses all of our existence: personal, family and social. This waiting is found in a thousand situations, from those little, everyday ones all the way to the most important things, those which completely, deeply, wrap us up. Among these, let us think of the waiting for a child by a couple; those of a relative or friend who comes to visit us from afar; let us think, for a young person, of the waiting for the result of an important test, or a job interview; in emotional relationships, of the waiting for one’s encounter with their beloved, of the response to a letter, or the acceptance of an apology… It could be said that man is alive while he waits, that in his heart hope is alive. And from these waitings man comes to know himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by that for which we wait, by that in which we hope.

Each of us, then, especially in this time that prepares us for Christmas, can ask ourselves: what am I waiting for? What, in this moment of my life, reaches out of my heart? This same question can place itself in the context of family, of community, of nation. What do we wait for, together? What unites our hopes, what do we share? In the time preceding the birth of Jesus, so strong in Israel was the anticipation of the Messiah, of the Sacred One, descendant of King David, who would finally liberate the people from their moral and political slavery and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. But no one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, betrothed to the just man Joseph. Neither had she thought of it, though in her heart the waiting for the Savior was so great, her faith and her hope so ardent, that He could find in her a worthy mother. From the first, God himself prepared her, even from before the ages. There is a mysterious correspondence between the waiting of God and that of Mary, the creature “full of grace,” totally transparent to the design of the Most High’s love. Let us learn from her, the Lady of Advent, to live our daily duties with a new spirit, with the sense of a profound waiting, one only the coming of God can quench.

May this devotion assist you in marking your Advent exercises and encourage a posture of preparation for the incarnation in our hearts.


[1] Johann Hinrich Wichern biography (in German)

[2] Alston, G.C. (1909). Gaudete Sunday. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 28, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06394b.htm

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