Today is the first Sunday of Advent, that period where Christians the world over begin building up their enthusiasm towards the celebration of Jesus’ birthday at Christmas. It also marks the beginning of an official new year in the western Christian Church.
The name derives from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’, and so during Advent we are anticipating the coming of the Lord. During Advent the Catholic Church expects that we will prepare ourselves “worthily” for Christ’s coming by making our souls “fitting abodes for our Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace”.
It is a period of preparation for all Christians. We are to take this time to prepare our bodies and souls for Christ’s arrival.
For Catholics, this is an outstanding time to get back to the Sacrament of Penance. We should all set time aside to find out when our particular Church will be holding Penance services, and take the opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the sins that keep us from a fuller relationship with the Lord.
In some cases these sins and our inability or unwillingness to confront them are keeping us from the Church itself. Advent is the most appropriate time to set aside our egos and recognize that we are part of something bigger in the Church community.
At some unknown point in the Middle Ages, the Christians adopted an existing tradition of the Germanic peoples who lit candles within a wreath during the winter months as a sign of hope for warmer brighter days of spring to come.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, chasing away the darkness of sin and radiating life and the love of God to all mankind. The wreath is made out of various evergreens, celebrating the continuous life.
The evergreens can be broken down further in symbolism: laurel signifying victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew signifying immortality; and cedar signifying strength and healing. The prickly leaves of holly also remind us of Christ’s crown of thorns.
The wreath is round, symbolizing the eternity of God with no beginning and no end. Pine cones and nuts in the wreath symbolize life and resurrection. The wreath as a whole signifies our immortal soul promised everlasting life through Christ. The four candles in the wreath represent the four weeks of Advent, and each also represents a millennium in a 4,000 year period from the time of Adam and Eve up until the birth of our Saviour.
Three of the candles are purple in color, and one candle is rose colored. The purple candles signify prayer, penance, and sacrifices of good works that we undertake during Advent. The rose candle is not saved for the end, but is lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, representing that we are halfway through the period and are coming quickly towards the birth of Christ. One candle is lit each week as we celebrate a progressive expectant buildup towards this most joyfully wondrous time of the Christian year.
At home, we should light the candles on Sunday after saying a prayer before dinner. Traditionally the father will say the prayer this first Sunday, and the youngest child will light the first purple candle. On the 2nd Sunday, the father will say the prayer and the eldest child will light two purple candles. On the 3rd Sunday after the father says the prayer, the mother will light two purple and the rose candle. Finally on the 4th Sunday, the father will light all of the candles after praying.
The entirety of Advent and the tradition of the wreath are simply to strengthen our homes and our families in remembering the true meaning of Christmas. With all of the shopping, presents, music, food, and other secular distractions, we always need to remember that there is only one ‘reason for the season’.
While Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, Scrooge and other characters are fun and well worth adding to the joy of a child’s season, we always must remember to put the ultimate focus on why we celebrate to begin with. God is coming to live among us. He will be born to us in his Son, Jesus Christ, who will be born and live and ultimately die so that we may live in eternity.
There is no greater event in the history of mankind than the birth of Christ, for the saving sacrifice of His death and resurrection would not be possible without His joyful birth. Here in Advent, we look forward to the birth of Christ, the light that came into the world.