In the Ceremonial of Bishops we are told that Advent has a twofold character. It is a season to prepare for Christmas when we remember Christ’s first coming and it is also a time when by this remembering, we direct our minds and hearts to await Christ’s second coming at the end of time – “Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.”
Advent is based on a Latin word which means, “Coming”. The colour of purple used during Lent, reminds us that Advent is also a time of preparation through increased prayer, fasting and penance as we ‘hold back’ to enter into the fullness of the Feast of Christ’s Nativity. We also reflect on how we can better our lives to receive Christ when he comes again so that we will not be found uncertain, afraid and out of touch with the ways of the Lord.
Another symbol which is prevalent in churches at this time is the Advent wreath and candles. The candles and wreath are generally placed in a circle thus representing the eternal nature of God, the immortality of the soul and our life in Christ.
The history of the wreath has European origins. During the dark and cold days of winter in the Northern hemisphere, lit candles were a sign of hope, looking forward to the longer and warmer days of Spring, and to the glorious and everlasting light of Christ’s eternal reign.
The original wreaths were made of various evergreens having their own meaning – laurel signified victory over persecution; pine, holly and yew represented immortality; and cedar, representing strength and healing. The prickly leaves of the holly represented the crown of thorns. Seeds or cones were intentionally left in the wreath to symbolise new life.
The four candles, along with fitting to the four Sundays of Advent, represent the ancient belief that it was 4,000 years from the creation and the fall of humanity, to the birth of Christ.
For me, the lighting of the Advent candles each week certainly creates a spirit of expectation. The first candle is an awakening to the hope we share as a Christian community and each week, we build our focus on joy, peace and goodwill which the birth of Jesus brings but, also, the hope for a world where these virtues will never be overshadowed by the darkness of evil and sin.
Fr Bob Harwood