Why do we have candles and wreaths for Advent? And why are pink and purple such special colours at this time? Some answers on the symbols of Advent.
The liturgical year begins anew with the Season of Advent. Advent refers to the coming of the Lord; both in the sense of the coming of Jesus into the world through his incarnation and birth, and also of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time. Both ‘comings’ require preparation and so in the Season of Advent we prepare with prayer and penance. As we make this journey of waiting and anticipating, symbols are there to help us.
The symbols of Advent keep the themes of prayer and penance ever before us. As the liturgical year is cyclical and the Church is entering a fresh new year, a round wreath of greenery is placed before the assembly as a focal point.
The Advent Wreath
Each Sunday throughout the four weeks of Advent, a candle is lit on the wreath to help us anticipate the weeks until Christmas Day. Three candles are usually purple in colour and each Sunday a new candle is lit along with those from preceding Sundays, to symbolise the Light of Christ.
The history of the Advent wreath lies in Europe where wagon wheels were hoisted with rope towards the ceiling of the home for winter storage and wagons were converted to sleighs to adapt to the snow. The suspended wagon wheels were decorated with greenery and candles to light the room. This symbolism is very powerful in the Northern Hemisphere when it is dark and cold in December; Christ the Light of the world is coming!
The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday because the first word of the Entrance Antiphon for that day is ‘Gaudete,’ Latin for ‘Rejoice’. Being past the halfway mark until Christmas, the Antiphon proclaims “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). On this Sunday the priest’s vestments are rose-coloured (or pink) as is the third Advent wreath candle. We are reminded visually to be a joyful people as we await the coming of the Lord. Sometimes on Christmas Day, a white candle is added to the centre of the wreath to symbolise Christ.
The Colour Purple
The counting of time is important as these weeks help us prepare for Advent with prayer and penance. This is why the liturgical colour for Advent is purple; some parishes may have a different shade of purple from the heavy purple of Lent, to emphasise the different penitential tone; but many parishes use the same purple vestments as they do in Lent.
Advent has a meditative and expectant sense to it and correspondingly our senses are to experience a paring back. We do not sing the Gloria in Advent, flowers are to be used in moderation and music should be simple and used more sparingly. Paring back in Advent allows us to pull out all the stops for the mighty Feast of Christmas.
Sharon Boyd is Professional Specialist – Liturgy Education at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Centre for Liturgy.
This article was originally featured in the Summer 2020/2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.