Why do we light the candles on the Advent wreath? … Because lighting Pastor’s fingers on fire is only fun in Photoshop.
But seriously, what’s the Advent wreath all about? What’s with the blue (or purple) and pink (rose) colored candles… and that big white one in the middle? Why is this piece of sanctuary furniture only brought out of the closet once a year?
To get answers let’s first turn to a pastor who wrote the book on ceremony and celebration (why and how the church — at least the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — does what it does). Okay, maybe it’s not the book, but really, Rev. Paul H.D. Lang wrote his extremely informative book, Ceremony and Celebration, with the hope and prayer that it “may contribute something to that phase of Lutheran liturgy which is concerned about its ceremonies” in order that it may “help promote the welfare of the church and the worship of God in and by the church, especially the Lutheran Church.” (Ceremony and Celebration. Preface. iii) In other words, so others, like us, could learn about things like the Advent wreath.
Concerning the tradition of the Advent wreath that originally comes from Germany, he writes,
“The lighting of an Advent wreath during Advent Season is a Christian ceremony which has come down to us from about the time of Martin Luther. As before the birth of Christ the light of prophecy concerning His advent and his redemptive work became brighter and brighter, so the nearer we come in the church year to the feast of His Nativity the greater the amount of light from the Advent wreath. This ceremony is helpful for recalling, discussing, and teaching the significance of Advent.
Think of the wreath like a candle clock, kind of like a birthday cake. The closer we get to Christmas the brighter the light gets! The older grandma gets, the brighter and more dangerous the candles become on her birthday cake.
An Advent wreath can be made by tying evergreen branches to a metal or wooden hoop, thus making a wreath.
Or purchased at Wal-Mart, Target, or any other fine wreath retailer in your area.
The wreath can be hung from the ceiling or from a stand. In the church an appropriate place for it is before the altar if it is hung from the ceiling and high enough to walk under it. Otherwise, it can be placed on the north or south side of the chancel, preferably on the north side.”
He goes on to speak about the lighting of the candles, lighting one and then two and then three and then four with each passing week of Advent. What Rev. Lang doesn’t mention is the specific colors of the candles.
It used to be the common practice to have all white candles on the wreath. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the tradition of the Advent wreath included three purple candles and one pink (rose) one.
But, wait. I’m used to seeing the wreath with blue candles, not purple. That can be the case. The purple/blue candles match the color of the paraments in your church. If your church wears the color blue during Advent, like Christ Lutheran does, then odds are your wreath has blue candles.
Purple is the color of royalty. It was the most expensive color to create back in the day — no, not when you were a kid — in Biblical times. Liturgically speaking, purple represents penitence and self-discipline. Blue, in the church, is the color of hope and anticipation. An argument can be made for the use of either color during the season of Advent. That’s a blog post for another day.
The Altar Guild Manual, by Lee A. Maxwell states that the reason we don’t typically see all white candles on the wreath anymore is because “ecclesiastical supply houses have promoted the custom of using colored candles” instead of white ones. These same supply houses also promote “the use of the Christ Candle” which is in the center of many wreaths, like the one pictured above, but wasn’t part of original Advent wreaths. Traditionally, the use of the Christ Candle is discouraged because the Advent wreath was removed from the chancel or nave on Christmas. There was no need for it because it was just a take on the paschal candle (the big white candle by the baptismal font) that’s already in the church. Today we see a lot of Christ Candles in the center of Advent wreaths. Those wreaths typically remain in the church for the duration of the twelve days of Christmas.
So we know what the purple/blue is all about, what those colors represent. What about the pink (rose) candle? Pink (rose) is used to represent rejoicing, which is the theme of the Third Sunday in Advent. No, the acolyte isn’t messing up when he lights the pink (rose) one on the third Sunday. That’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s the week where we read Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” It’s a week set apart, especially if you use the purple theme of Advent, with a distinctly different, yet similarly couched focus. For a great article about all the rejoicing going on on Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent, and how it stands out from the rest of Advent, check out this article by Rev. Roberto Rojas Jr.
There are a bunch of traditions surrounding the Advent wreath. If you have a certain custom that you practice with your family I’d love to hear about it, just pull me aside at church or give me a call. In the mean time may our Lord bless you this Advent season!