As Christians, we use symbols to express visually the basic tenets of our faith and as reminders of the pilgrimage of our life in Christ. Symbols can have heightened meaning for us when associated with particular seasons of that journey. One such symbol is the Advent wreath.
The Advent wreath has its roots in the pre-Christian practices of northern Europe. People sought the return of the sun in the dark time of the year (at the winter solstice) by lighting candles and fires. As early as the Middle Ages, Christians used fire and light to represent Christ's coming into the world. Using this same symbolism, the Advent wreath developed a few centuries ago in Germany as a sign of the waiting and hopeful expectation of the return in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The wreath, a circle, came to represent the eternal victory over death through Jesus Christ. The evergreens were a sign of the faithfulness of God to God’s people, even in death, and the lighted candles were a reminder of the light of Christ brought into the world.
This symbolism can be just as strong for us today. As is the case with all symbols, they speak most loudly to remind us of God's promises of life when they are drawn directly out of our daily experience and environment. One should consider using only natural materials from God's creation when making an Advent wreath. Evergreens come in many varieties and may be treated with a flame retardant substance. Branches of holly, laurel, and other green shrubs, which retain their freshness longer than pine, may also be used. The circular shape, a symbol of eternal life, is most important. Using an alternative shape, such as a log, would diminish the meaning of the symbol, which is no longer a circle.
There is no one prescribed color for the candles, although several traditions are current. Four natural colored candles are always appropriate and symbolize the Light for which we wait. Four deep purple candles, a sign of the penitential nature sometimes attributed to the season, may be appropriate. Congregations that use blue as the liturgical color during Advent would be consistent to use blue candles. The older practice using a pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent is no longer consistent with the current lectionary.
Liturgical renewal in the last decades of this century has shifted the focus of these four weeks to one of hope and expectation of the coming of the Christ. This hope looks forward not only to celebrating the child in the manger, but even more to Christ’s coming in glory at the end of time–-a continuation of the eschatalogical emphasis of the last Sundays after Pentecost. Candles in rich royal blue are symbolic of this hope. Coincidentally, these two colors, purple and blue, have long been associated with the same ideas: the symbolic colors of royal blood and of longing; the natural colors of the dawn before the sun rises and the deep shades of midnight.
The size of the Advent wreath should be appropriate to the size of the worship space. Although the wreath should not draw attention away from the font, the table, and the ambo, it should be of sufficient size to make a strong statement about the meaning of the season. It may be hung or placed on a table or stand but it is never put on the altar.
Because the Advent wreath does not carry with it liturgical action or significance, its should be lit simply and unobtrusively, perhaps before the service when the other candles are lighted. It is also appropriate to light the candle after the Old Testament reading during the singing of the psalm or as a part of the entrance rite immediately following the entrance hymn. Blessings for the Advent wreath may be found in Sundays and Seasons. Some congregations like to accompany the lighting of the Advent wreath with an appropriate song. Consider using a different stanza of the same hymn, such as "Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah" (ELW 240), each week.
The Advent wreath is also appropriate for daily use in home devotions. The making of the wreath can be a family activity, using materials gathered from the yard or garden. Resources for use of the Advent wreath in the home, including suggestions for assembling a wreath, are among those listed below.
- Briehl, Susan. Come Lord Jesus: Devotions for the Home. Advent/Christmas/Epiphany. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
- Stauffer, S. Anita. Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. Explains seasonal colors and describes the use of the Advent wreath and Christmas creche. ISBN: 0806638966.
- Sundays and Seasons: Worship Planning Guide.Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, published annually.
- Welcome Home: Scripture, Prayers, and Blessings for the Household. Years A, B, C.Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.