Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 28, 2008

Advent Wreath 101

The church year begins every year four Sundays before Christmas Day (translation: the Sunday that occurs from November 27 to December 3).  The first season of the church year, Advent, is celebrated on the four Sundays before Christmas.  Advent has a number of interesting customs that have developed around it; the advent wreath is probably one of the best-known Advent worship customs.  I thought I’d share some thoughts and information about the Advent wreath in this post.

advent-wreath-1

Here's a picture of our church's Advent wreath, with all the candles lit in the darkened building.

I’ve heard from more than one Lutheran source that Martin Luther is assumed to be the “father” or “inventor” of the Advent wreath.  I suppose that makes for a nice story, especially if you’re a Lutheran, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be true.  The best theory about the Advent wreath’s origins that I’ve heard came from one of my liturgy classes at Santa Clara University.  The professor suggested that Advent wreaths originated in the colder climates of Northern Europe.   Men would remove the wheels of horse-drawn carriages just before winter set in, when snow and muddy conditions would make such travel difficult.  The wheels were brought inside, and possibly placed up in the rafters of houses.  Eventually the muddy wheels were decorated with evergreen boughs, then candles, and voila — the origins of the Advent wreath at the time of the year just before Christmas.

In time, the use of the Advent wreath became wide spread and moved from the home into the church. The general symbolism of the Advent wreath lies in the growing light of the wreath: each Sunday another candle from the wreath is lighted as we approach the birthday of Jesus, the Light of the world.  Advent wreaths have four candles around the circle, one for each Sunday of the Advent season.  Modern Advent wreaths frequently include a fifth candle, the white “Christ candle” in the center of the wreath, which is first lighted at worship on Christmas Eve.

Historically, Advent was thought of as a season of repentance prior to the joyful celebration of Christmas.  The traditional Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent, for example, takes us to the Jordan River where John the Baptist called the crowds to repentance in anticipation of Jesus’ ministry.  Purple has often been thought of as a color symbolizing repentance, and so liturgical churches were often adorned with purple during Advent, and Advent candles were colored purple as a result.

A “conflict” was perceived on the Third Sunday in Advent, when the Scripture readings often presented the theme of joy in anticipation of the coming Savior.  Since joy seemed to conflict with the color purple (a symbol of repentance), the third candle in many advent wreaths was colored rose or pink instead of purple.

Recently, Lutherans and other liturgical churches have reexamined the idea that repentance is the primary emphasis of Advent.  While repentance is certainly a theme in Advent (especially the Second Sunday in Advent), it is not necessarily the primary emphasis during Advent.  Many now perceive that a better overall theme for Advent is hope — the hope that comes from anticipating Jesus’ entrance into our world.  With this adjusted emphasis, blue often appears now as the liturgical color for Advent.  Blue is viewed as the color that symbolizes hope.  I suppose this could work as a good teaching tool: God’s Old Testament people looked up to the (blue) sky and waited for God to send the Messiah from heaven to earth as he had promised.

banner-advent-1Hope doesn’t clash with the joy emphasis of the Third Sunday in Advent like the previous repentance focus did.  For that reason, it seems to me that the reason for the separate pink candle on the third Sunday is eliminated if a church uses blue banners, paraments (the colored cloths on the altar, lectern, and/or pulpit that are changed with the church seasons), and Advent candles.  But the reality is that the pink candle has been around so long that people all but expect it.  Consequently, you can find church supply companies that will sell you four different combinations of Advent candles: [1] four purple, [2] four blue, [3] three purple and one pink, or [4] three blue and one pink.  It seems to me that if a church uses the newer color blue for Advent, then four blue candles make the most sense; if a church uses the historic color purple for Advent, then three purple candles and one pink candle seem logical.  One WELS worship leader suggests that we ought to put a stop to all this “what’s the right color?” nonsense and just make them all white.  I prefer blue candles myself, but I can certainly see where that person is coming from!

Various names have been associated with the different candles of the Advent wreath.  One custom designates the four candles as the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherd candle, and the angel candle.  Another tradition refers to the four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace, and attributes each theme to a specific candle of the Advent wreath.  Most customs associated with the wreath refer to the center candle (if there is one) as the Christ candle.

As with any liturgical custom, there is no “right” or “correct” tradition, in that these are not biblically mandated customs.  We are free to adopt or adapt customs that will best serve gospel proclamation for our time and place (don’t pull that statement out of its context — or take the word “gospel” out of it!!!).  But these customs can become useful teaching tools, especially for children.  Younger generations are extremely visual learners, and the weekly “growing lights” on the Advent wreath can be used by pastors, teachers, and parents to teach children to anticipate the arrival of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the world.”

One more thought: Like Christmas trees, Advent wreaths seem to be taken down five minutes after the Christmas morning service.  But the Christmas season itself lasts 12 days — December 25 through January 5 — and then concludes with the celebration of Epiphany Day on January 6.  To this observer, it seems appropriate that we keep the Christmas decorations and the Advent wreath (with all candles lit during services) up through our celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany.  The world exhausts Christmas before we get there (when do Christmas sales start these days — September?), and so we’re all but “Christmassed out” on December 25.  But the church anticipates Christmas during Advent, and then we celebrate it for the 12 days of the season.  So, if I may offer my two cents worth, put up the trees and decorations as late as you can, light the candles one by one each week, build a sense of anticipation in worship, and then savor the Christmas celebration with all its “fixings” for the whole season.

Note added 12/3/2008:  If a church wants to put a little “ceremony” around the lighting of the Advent candles each week, there are some short responses found in Christian Worship: Occasional Services that could be used in place of the Gloria in Excelsis (historically omitted for Advent & Lent) or the Verse of the Day (the sung “Alleluia” verse just before the Gospel is read).  The designated candles are lit after the responses are spoken. … I should also point out, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, that some of the information above came from articles on the WELS Commission on Worship website that I reworked and turned into a bulletin insert for my congregation.  Some sections of this post were cut and pasted from that insert, but I don’t know the original article or link now.  So if you find something on the WELS C/W site that sounds similar, at least you’ll know which one is the “chicken” and which one is the “egg.”

Note added 11/11/2009:  Now that Advent is approaching again, this post is getting a high number of hits, especially from web searches for information on Advent wreaths and the Advent season.  If this post interested you, you might also enjoy the subsequent post, The Wisdom of Waiting, from December 15, 2008.


Responses

  1. Thanks for the info! I should have read this sooner. We didn’t have an answer this morning at church when our five-year-old son asked why one candle was pink. I didn’t know what the blue meant either. Our pastor was able to explain it all, so our little curious one left fully informed.

  2. Thanks for the Advent info! I’m currently using the seasons of the Church year as the topic of our Altar Guild Bible studies. It’s fascinating to see the origin of some of our customs. We did Advent a couple months ago but I don’t recall coming across the hanging of the wagon wheel tidbit. Thanks for that nugget!

    I’ve briefly suggested putting up the Christmas tree even later in the season — like the week before Christmas, and so far no one has jumped at it. I succeeded in pushing it back about a week, this year, but only because of the lateness of Thanksgiving.

    The challenge is that Advent is so often perceived as Christmas Prep, or even Christmas Lite, and perception becomes reality. You have the origins in a Lent-like penitential season of up to seven weeks (holy smokes — that’s a lot of midweek Advent services!). Then, there’s the three-fold focus on Christ coming — in the clouds, in the means of grace, in the manger. How do you decide which to do or which to focus on or all of them?

    And, finally, here’s one for you — other than the obvious answer — “To proclaim the Gospel and administer the Sacrament” — what exact purpose do midweek Advent services serve? How did they begin? What is their rationale or reason for being?

    My justification for them is that I use them in a Lent-like fashion. Instead of reading the Passion, we read through the pre-Christmas story in Luke 1. Then, the sermon meditates upon either the Old Testament prophecies for the Advent Sundays, or this year it’s the Magnificat.

  3. Hi Pastor Tomczak,

    Thanks for your comment! It’s unquestionably a struggle to move any congregation that finds itself in the American “Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving” culture into the thinking that says that Advent is prep time, not party time (so to speak). We had a former member from the Czech Republic who was stunned that we put the Christmas tree up in church before Christmas Eve. I know many older Christians who recall a time when the tree and decorations didn’t show up until Christmas. Of course, there’s no right or wrong here, but there is wisdom behind a time of preparation before the celebration. It’s worth doing if you can gently convince people to give it a try.

    I’ve been surprised to see how many hits on this blog have come from the Advent post. Apparently there are many people doing websearches to find information about Advent! It almost begs for another Advent post, as do many of your fine comments above. I may try to put another Advent informational post together before too long.

    For now, I’ll put in my two cents worth on midweek Advent services. Non-Lutherans readers of this blog may not know that it’s a fairly common custom in American Lutheran churches to add midweek (usually Wednesday evening) services during the seasons of Advent and Lent. Advent services aren’t nearly as “universal” as Lent services are, but they’re fairly common, especially in larger congregations. (This December will be the first time in my 7+ years here that my congregation is not going to have midweek services for Advent, but we have no intention of getting rid of midweek Lent services).

    Midweek Lent services are an American Lutheran phenomenon. Rather than holding daily services in Holy Week as was the more historic, European custom, several services focusing on Christ’s passion were spread out during the whole Lent season. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I wonder if the development of midweek services during the preparatory season of Lent eventually led to the idea that we should also offer midweek services during the other preparatory season, Advent.

    Pastors know how hard it is to keep individual themes or emphases distinct during the end of one church year and the beginning of a new church year. The WELS/Christian Worship lectionary has done us a service by indicating specific emphases for the last for Sundays of the church year. We celebrate the Lutheran Reformation on the Sunday that falls from October 30 to November 5, and then we have three Sundays focusing on end time themes — specifically: the Last Judgment, Saints Triumphant (i.e. heaven), and finally Christ the King. Then when Advent starts, we have further end time thoughts — usually a Sunday focused on spiritual readiness for Christ’s return, then a Sunday focused on repentance, and then a Sunday that considers the joy of anticipating Christ’s return. So, basically, we get six Sundays in a row of end time thoughts prior to the last Sunday in Advent.

    Now add midweek Advent services. What should we talk about? More end time stuff? That seems like overkill. Unlike Lent, midweek Advent services don’t have a unique, “prescribed” focus. So what happens is that we end up talking about Christmas early, and in the process exhaust Christmas before we get there.

    You raised a good point that midweek Advent services could be to Christmas what midweek Lent services are to Easter: Tell the story that preceded the story. For Easter, that means telling the passion history in Lent. For Christmas, that means we could work through Luke 1 during the three midweek Advent services. There’s certainly enough content there to keep any preacher occupied for several years.

    One idea that was promoted at a past WELS National Worship Conference was to preach on the appointed Gospel reading for Sunday services in Advent, and then to use the First Lesson (Old Testament) for the midweek Advent services. I did that for a couple of years at it worked pretty well.

    In other years, we did sermon/service series for the three midweeks plus Christmas Day. One year the theme was “Angelic Advent Announcements,” and we focused on the angel’s announcements to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), Jospeh (Matthew 1:18-25), and the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). Another year the theme was “Songs for the Savior,” and the readings were taken from the Songs of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), and the angels (Luke 2:14). There’s nothing profound about those series, but for the most part they are set up to follow the pre-Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew.

    Those are my Advent musings for now. Hopefully there will be more to come. But thanks for your comment!

  4. Thanks for the response! Lots of great thoughts there. I’ve done the Gospel/OT thing the past two years. It has the added bonus of making sure I’m doing more OT preaching (never enough, just more!).

    Here’s another one for you. I asked this of Pastor Aaron Christie at our School of Worship Enrichment and now I’ll ask you:

    If you could have/recommend only one resource/book for the study of worship, liturgy, worship rites, history of worship, origins of customs/rites/usages, etc., what would it be?

  5. While not putting a “rubber stamp” on its theological content, I have found the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, edited by Peter E. Fink, to be a helpful resource for finding background to seasons, customs, rites, etc. It’s a pretty thick volume. You can find it here on Amazon:


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