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.
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.
Hope 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:  four purple,  four blue,  three purple and one pink, or  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.