Advent: Waiting in Joyful Hope

By Mary Kearns

We are so accustomed to seeing the Advent Wreath in the sanctuary that if we don’t think too much about it, it can look like just another Christmas decoration. The biblical significance of the four candles symbolizing the four weeks of preparation for the great feast of the Nativity of Our Lord can be overlooked.

The custom of the Advent Wreath seems to have originated in pagan times. Candles were lit during the darkest part of the year in anticipation of the new light that would start to appear following the winter solstice in mid-December. After the coming of Christianity, as with many other pagan customs, the Advent Wreath was adapted for Christian use. The old pagan beliefs were given new meaning when seen in the light of the Gospel.

Given Christian meaning, the Advent Wreath represents the story of salvation. We can first understand this from the visual aspect of the circular wreath. The evergreen leaves symbolize the eternal nature of God and his everlasting presence with his people.

Five candles adorn the wreath and each has an individual significance. Three of the candles are purple and one is rose. The only white candle is the last to be lit at Christmas. It represents the light of Christ coming into the world – the Saviour who dispels the darkness with his own pure light.

The four Advent candles signify the weeks of preparation time until Christmas. In popular tradition it was held that four thousand years passed from our first parents until the birth of the Saviour. Each of the four candles in the Advent Wreath represents one thousand years and the gradual revelation of God to his people

On the first Sunday of Advent, the priest blesses the wreath and lights the first purple candle. This is called the Prophecy Candle or the Candle of Hope. The candle signifies the living hope that God will rescue his people by sending a Saviour who will redeem us from the darkness of sin. We are certain of this hope because God is faithful and will keep the promises made to us. Our hope comes from God and is made visible in the person of Jesus Christ, soon to be born at Christmas. The Prophecy Candle is a reminder that we should prepare for the coming of the Lord by prayer, penance and good deeds at this time. This is also the Candle of Hope, the hope that is grounded in scripture.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Messiah would spring from the branch of the tree of Jesse, father of King David. This tree represents the royal authority of the house of David, a tree apparently dead for hundreds of years. The birth of Jesus would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that a new green branch would spring up and the King and Messiah would rule over the nations.

A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isaiah 11:1-2)

On the second Sunday of Advent, the second purple candle or the candle of Preparation is lit. It will not be long until the prophecy will be fulfilled. God will keep his promise of the Saviour who will be born in Bethlehem. The call to repentance resounds in our ears with the words of John the Baptist – the one calling in the desert:

 “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”  (Luke 3:4-6)

The light of Christ is coming into the world. The world will be illumined. By the second week the tension is heightening as the time draws near. Nonetheless, it is a time for self-examination – a time for putting things in the right order in our lives. The time of darkness might be filled with sadness but this is temporary and serves to enable us to more fully appreciate the light. We must remember that night is always followed by the new day dawning. The Preparation candle reminds us to renew our faith and try to conform our hearts to what God is asking from us.

Advent calls us to re-focus on God’s promise of deliverance and the coming of the flesh-and-blood Jesus who came first to Bethlehem, the same Lord who comes to us in the Holy Eucharist, and who will come again at the end of time.

There is no better way to prepare this week than to immerse ourselves in the contemplation of Our Blessed Lady. How was she experiencing this time? What an awe-inspiring event was about to occur! God, already incarnate in Mary’s womb is about to be born into our world. It is a new beginning. The Church opens the liturgical year with the longing that leads to Bethlehem, to our own renewal, to the conversion of the world.

Rose is the colour for the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sundayfrom the Latin word “rejoice.” Gaudete Sunday anticipates the joy of the Christmas celebration, so its colour is a mixture of Advent purple and Christmas white.The tone of joy is announced in the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass which exhorts us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. The Lord is near.” (Phil. 4:4-5)

It is worth noticing that we are told to “rejoice in the Lord,” not rejoice in ourselves, in our virtues, our talents, our success or our possessions. “Rejoice in the Lord” whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. “Rejoice in the Lord” who is the way, the truth and the life.”

By the time we arrive at the Fourth Sunday of Advent there is an accumulation of light in the sanctuary. The fourth candle is the Candle of Love sometimes known as the Angel Candle. It reminds us that the good news of the Saviour’s birth was announced by the angels. God sent his only Son to earth to save us, because he loves us! In the past weeks the candles of Prophecy, of Preparation, of Joy have been lit. Now it is time for the Candle of Love.

All the candles point to Jesus, the Light of the world (John 3:17-21). The evergreen wreath reminds believers that our Saviour God grants new and everlasting life in Jesus. The wreath is also a symbol of victory, for a garland wreath was often placed on the head of those victorious in contests or conquests. As Christian people we hope in the crown of life that Jesus has won for us. The four candles in the Advent Wreath emphasize the four week period of penitence and preparation as we eagerly await the coming of the Light of the world to bring new life and hope. Our God is a God of hope.

When we see the Advent Wreath in the sanctuary of our church we are reminded that we are a people who “wait in joyful hope.”

With special thanks to:

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