If we are counting days with an advent calendar then the Advent wreath and the adding and lighting of a new candle each Sunday helps us mark the weeks in the run up to Christmas. But don’t think we are just marking four weeks; with the Advent wreath we are time travelling as we step outside ordinary time into eternal time – God’s time.
The wreath itself is circular – a symbol of the eternal nature of God. Like a circle, God has no beginning and no end. God is the great I AM, eternally present. I often think of God being at the centre of a circle – at the still point. From here God sees all things at whatever point of the circle they are found and because the eternity God offers us is one of life, so the circle is made from evergreen foliage. Each of the evergreens has a different significance, a virtue to remind us that we are a pilgrim people who need strengthening for the journey. Laurel, with its dark shiny leaves, signifies victory; fir and yew, immortality, whilst ivy reminds us of our need to stay close to God.
The foliage also reminds that even as we prepare for Christmas we are already looking towards Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross and the resurrection at Easter. The prickly leaves of the holly remind us of the crown of thorns, whilst the berries recall the blood Jesus shed for us. In contrast pinecones symbolize life and point us towards the resurrection.
As we know only too well by the time we reach Advent the days have drawn in. It’s dark mornings and dark evenings. Even in our well-lit modern society we are aware of the darkness. And it’s not just physical darkness - watch any news bulletin to witness the spiritual darkness of our world – war, poverty, greed and intolerance… To help light the way the Advent wreath has candles to guide us on our way. Isaiah tells us, ‘the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.’ In advent we are awaiting the arrival of the light of Christ, not just at Christmas, but also the second coming of Christ at the end of time.
Candles one, two and four are purple – a sign that Advent, like Lent, is a time of prayer, penance and preparation. However the candle lit on the 3rd Sunday, (Gaudete Sunday) is rose pink! We are over half the way through Advent and we are told to rejoice! After all Jesus is coming very soon!
The final candle is white and is lit on Christmas Day. It of course symbolizes Jesus, the light of the world.
Mostly we experience the lighting of the Advent wreath in church on a Sunday morning at Mass, and so we miss the real power of seeing candles shining in darkness.
Why not make your own Advent wreath? Light it at night, and watch how the flame of even one candle breaks the power of the darkness. Smell the scent of the greenery. Touch the spiky cones, the prickle of holly and the feathery fir. The wreath helps us to pray using so many of our senses, reminding us that God is ever present in all we do, see, smell and feel.