Liturgical churches like the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians, Presbyterians and Methodists celebrate the beginning of the new church year on the first day of a season known as “Advent”. It is a time of waiting and preparation for the birth of Christ, as well as for the Second Coming of Christ. The word adventus is Latin for “coming”. The same concept in Greek is parousia, and biblically refers only the Second Coming of Christ.
Now regardless of what those little Advent boxes of chocolates with secular pictures of Father Christmas or snow scenes with one chocolate for each day between 1 and 24 December might say, Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – which can be any date from 27 November to 3 December inclusive. It just so happens that in 2013 1 December is a Sunday.
Every season in the church has a colour associated with it. Advent is a time of penitence and expectation and it gets the colour purple associated with it. However, in some church practices Advent is not marked with purple, but with the colour blue, a colour representing hope. This modern usage of blue originated in the Lutheran Church of Sweden, but then it was discovered that the medieval Sarum Rite (both Catholic and now Anglican) in England also used blue for Advent. The Methodist book of worship allows purple or blue. In more traditional churches where purple candles are used in Advent wreaths it is common to use a pink candle for the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. In Eastern Church rites Advent does not mark the beginning of the church year and it is called the Nativity Fast and the colours red and gold are both used.
Fasting for Advent is now uncommon in western rites. Special Advent music including Nine Lessons and Carols and a performance of Handel’s Messiah are common during Advent.
In modern times Advent wreaths are used to mark the passage of the season in both homes and in churches. In churches the readings for the day relate to various aspects of the prophecy of a Saviour. For those biblical fundamentalists who are concerned about such worldly things as Advent wreaths, console yourselves that this preparation is symbolic of the preaching of John the Baptist: “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ~Luke 3:4.
An Advent Wreath is a symbolic way to help us prepare our hearts. The wreath is a circle, without beginning or end, symbolizing God who is eternal. The wreath is made of evergreens, symbolizing Christ, who is forever alive. The evergreen branches are also symbolic of our eternal life, which we now have through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
The wreath also has four candles, one for each week in Advent. Sometimes there is a fifth candle which is the Christ candle which is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Christ is the light of the world.
I am not very good at a lot of personal ritual, and I am a single person who is not concerned with transmitting church traditions and spiritual values to a new generation, so I have been using an African wire Christmas tree with four holders for candles as both my Advent wreath and my Christmas tree for a number of years now. This year I have purchased a new artificial green tree for Christmas, but have not given any serious thought to a new way of marking Advent for myself, so I find myself once again marking Advent with a Christmas tree with four candles. This year I have decorated the tree with candy canes and the candles are simple white “kitchen” candles. It doesn’t look anything like a traditional wreath. There are also online wreaths for people who haven’t the time, energy, money or space for a real wreath. This at least prevents the situation which I find myself in where my advent wreath is sharing space with my Easter cards which I have not, as yet, put away.
There are no ‘rules’ anymore for any form of religious commemoration but Advent is a great countdown to the excitement and blessings of Christmas. Accordingly I encourage people to design their marking of this season meaningfully for themselves.
May your Advent be blessed!