The Season of Advent: History and Traditions
by Fr. William Saunders
The liturgical season of Advent marks the time of spiritual preparation by the faithful before Christmas. Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30). It spans four Sundays and four weeks of preparation, although the last week of Advent is usually truncated because of when Christmas falls.
The celebration of Advent has evolved in the spiritual life of the Church. The historical origins of Advent are hard to determine with great precision. In its earliest form, beginning in France, Advent was a period of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when converts were baptized; so the Advent preparation was very similar to Lent with an emphasis on prayer and fasting which lasted three weeks and later was expanded to 40 days. In 380, the local Council of Saragossa, Spain, established a three-week fast before Epiphany. Inspired by the Lenten regulations, the local Council of Macon, France, in 581 designated that from November 11 (the Feast of St. Martin of Tours) until Christmas, fasting would be required on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Eventually, similar practices spread to England. In Rome, the Advent preparation did not appear until the sixth century, and was viewed as a preparation for Christmas with less of a penitential bent.
The Church gradually more formalized the celebration of Advent. The Gelasian Sacramentary, traditionally attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (d. 496), was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays. Later, Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604) enhanced these liturgies composing prayers, antiphons, readings and responses. About the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year. Finally, Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1095) later reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four.
Despite the “sketchy” history behind Advent, the importance of this season remains to focus on the coming of our Lord. (Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.”) The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses the two-fold meaning of this “coming”: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming” (no. 524).
Therefore, on one hand, the faithful reflect back and are encouraged to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s first coming into this world. We ponder again the great mystery of the incarnation when our Lord humbled Himself, taking on our humanity, and entered our time and space to free us from sin. On the other hand, we recall in the Creed that our Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead and that we must be ready to meet Him.
The Advent Wreath
A good, pious way to help us in our Advent preparation has been the use of the Advent wreath. The wreath is a circle, which has no beginning or end: So we call to mind how our lives, here and now, participate in the eternity of God’s plan of salvation and how we hope to share eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. The wreath is made of fresh plant material, because Christ came to give us new life through His passion, death and resurrection. Three candles are purple, symbolizing penance, preparation and sacrifice; the pink candle symbolizes the same but highlights the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when we rejoice because our preparation is now half-way finished. The light itself represents Christ, who entered this world to scatter the darkness of evil and show us the way of righteousness. The progression of lighting candles shows our increasing readiness to meet our Lord. Each family ought to have an Advent wreath, light it at dinner time and say the special prayers. This tradition will help each family keep its focus on the true meaning of Christmas. In all, during Advent we strive to fulfill the opening prayer for the Mass of the first Sunday of Advent: “Father in Heaven … increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of His coming may find us rejoicing in His presence and welcoming the light of His truth.”
The Advent wreath is part of our long-standing Catholic tradition. However, the actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreaths 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, lit 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.
By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreaths 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. Jn 3:19-21). By 1500, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.
The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning that can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul and the everlasting life found in Christ. Any pine cones, nuts or seedpods used to decorate the wreath also symbolize life and resurrection. All together, the wreath of evergreens depicts the immortality of our soul and the new, everlasting life promised to us through Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death and resurrection.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. A tradition is that each week represents 1,000 years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the birth of the Savior. (This tradition is exemplified in the work of Anglican Archbishop James Ussher who in his 1650 treatise The Annals of the Old Testament,
Deduced from the First Origin of the World, gave the date of Creation at 4004 BC; interestingly, he even pinpointed Oct. 23 at noon.) Three candles are purple and one is rose. The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday 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.
The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some modern day adaptations include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.
In family practice, the Advent wreath is most appropriately lit at dinnertime after the blessing of the food. A traditional prayer service using the Advent wreath proceeds as follows: On the First Sunday of Advent, the father of the family blesses the wreath, praying: “O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” He then continues for each of the days of the first week of Advent, “O Lord, stir up Thy might, we beg thee, and come, that by Thy protection we may deserve to be rescued from the threatening dangers of our sins and saved by Thy deliverance. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The youngest child then lights one purple candle.
During the second week of Advent, the father prays: “O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for Thy only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve Thee with pure minds. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The oldest child then lights the purple candle from the first week plus one more purple candle.
During the third week of Advent, the father prays: “O Lord, we beg Thee, incline Thy ear to our prayers and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of Thy visitation. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.”
The mother then lights the two previously lit purple candles plus the rose candle.
Finally, the father prays during the fourth week of Advent, “O Lord, stir up Thy power, we pray Thee, and come; and with great might help us, that with the help of Thy grace, Thy merciful forgiveness may hasten what our sins impede. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The father then lights all of the candles of the wreath. Of course, this prayer service can be adapted to meet a family’s particular needs.
Since Advent is a time to stir-up our faith in the Lord, the wreath and its prayers provide us a way to augment this special preparation for Christmas. Moreover, this good tradition helps us to remain vigilant in our homes and not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas.
Fr. Saunders is a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria, Virginia. His book entitled Straight Answers is available in Catholic bookstores or via the internet. This article is reprinted with permission, courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.