Wednesday, December 04, 2019 - Updated: 2:45 pm
QUESTION: During Advent I see the wreath and the candles in the sanctuary of almost every Catholic church. Is this an ancient custom or one that is relatively recent in the church? Is it required?
ANSWER: The response to the above question is best seen in the context of Advent itself. The season of Advent is the product of a complex history. It is an entirely Western initiative for we see nothing of it in any of the ancient (or modern) liturgies of the Eastern churches.
In the West, the season of Advent seems related to a time of preparation for the feast of Epiphany. In some local churches in the West, baptism was conferred on Epiphany as well as Easter. Therefore, some preparation was needed for those to be baptized at Epiphany. Generally, where Epiphany baptism existed, Advent was a period of six weeks and had many of the characteristics of Lent (fasting, penance, etc.).
In the ancient Roman liturgy, however, baptisms were not conferred at Epiphany. Therefore, Advent was a liturgical season preparing for the feast of the birth of Christ. It had none of the penitential character of Lent. Thus, the Gloria continued to be sung and, as late as the 12th century, white vestments were worn during Advent.
Gradually, the customs of various churches fused, and by modern times Advent had taken on much of the same penitential tone (and colors) as Lent.
Our contemporary understanding of the season emerges from the vision of the Second Vatican Council. General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar describe Advent as: “The season of Advent has a twofold character. It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God’s Son is recalled. It is also a season when minds are directed by this memorial to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation.”
In this context, we might better understand the meaning of the Advent wreath. It is important to note that the liturgical texts and especially the Scripture readings for each day of Advent are the real “symbols” of this season. The wreath is but one reflection of these texts.
The Advent wreath emerged from Central Europe sometime after the season’s length had been solidified to four weeks. Its evergreens were a preview of the festive greens of Christmas and its four candles represented the four weeks of Advent (and some would say the “4,000” years during which the world waited for the birth of Christ).
Today, the liturgical directives say that if an Advent wreath is used in churches it should be large enough to be seen by the people and either hung from the ceiling or placed high enough to be easily seen by the entire congregation. The hanging wreath is prevalent in many parts of Europe and is favored to enable people to look through it toward heaven.
While the Advent wreath is not strictly part of the church’s official liturgy, it is nonetheless one important symbol of the preparation appropriate for this season.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.