Catholics across the nation will be lighting the final candles on their Advent wreaths these next few Sundays, completing a circle full of symbolism.
The Vatican teaches that Advent wreaths are an expression of popular piety, a facet of worship that should be considered secondary to the Mass. At the same time, since the Second Vatican Council, almost every Catholic church and most Catholic homes make a place of honor for the circles of greens with four candles.
"I think in the movement toward Catholic identity, parishes are encouraging families to keep these kinds of customs," says Lorie Simmons, a member of St. Mary Cathedral in Portland and an editor for Liturgy Training Publications. "This is not a liturgical rite, but a household rite we brought into the churches."
Advent is about more than marking an event 2,000 years ago and the wreaths help make that clear. Progressive lighting of candles symbolizes a two-part hope surrounding Jesus's first coming into the world but also the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead, says the U.S. bishops' Committee on Divine Worship. The very word Advent means "coming" or "arrival."
The four candles represent the four weeks of the season. Three are purple — symbolizing prayer, penance, preparatory sacrifices and goods works. One is rose, a sign of rejoicing because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas.
The season of Advent is a late comer to Christian tradition, says Providence Sister Jeremy Gallet, director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office for Worship.
The early church focused on the paschal mystery and Christ's return. By about 325 A.D., Christians began formal Christmas celebrations. Gradually, a season of preparation built up and combined the two comings of Christ — in Bethlehem and at the end of time.
The wreath tradition is linked to pre-Christian Germanic practice, when villagers lit candles as a sign of hope for warmer and brighter spring days. In Scandinavia, candles were placed on a wagon wheel, an invitation to the gods to turn the earth back toward the sun.
By the Middle Ages, Christians adapted the tradition and used wreaths as part of Advent, writes Father William Saunders, dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Virginia. By 1600, Father Saunders says, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.
The wreath came to carry multiple symbolic meanings. The circular shape is seen as a reminder of God's presence and mercy, which has no end. The green symbolizes of hope for renewal and eternal life. Candles signify the light of God coming into the world, and remind worshipers that they, too, are called to be light in the Kingdom of God.
For centuries, Advent was a time of penance and fasting. As the notion of penitence gave way to a theme of expectant preparation in the 20th century, Advent wreaths had a resurgence in Catholic homes and then in churches.
"Anything that helps us focus on something beyond ourselves is good, especially in this age when we are so material," Sister Jeremy says.
Parents can use a home Advent wreath and other symbols to help children understand the deep religious themes of the season, says Claire Woodruff, coordinator of religious education for the archdiocese.
"It's not just anticipating Christ's birth, but actively building up the Kingdom to bring it about," Woodruff says. She suggests having young people not only light the candles and do Advent readings, but keep track of good deeds. For her own children, she put up a small bare tree to be slowly decorated with stars inscribed with kind acts the youngsters had done.
"Christian parenting is at times like swimming against the tide," Woodruff says. "The idea is to . . . . open a window so children can ask not just 'What's for me?' but 'What can I do for somebody else today?'"