Advent marks the start of the Christmas season. It begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, and covers fours Sundays. Because the day it begins changes from year to year, so does the length of each Advent season. In the year 2001, Advent begins on December 2 and lasts 23 days.
The word advent, from Latin, means "the coming." For centuries, Advent has been a time of spiritual reflection as well as cheer and anticipation. Even as the Christmas season has become more secular—with advertisers urging holiday gift-givers to buy and buy some more—Advent still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath, and children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas.
The Advent wreath is an increasingly popular symbol of the beginning of the Church year in many churches as well as homes. It is a circular evergreen wreath (real or artificial) with five candles, four around the wreath and one in the center. Since the wreath is symbolic and a vehicle to tell the Christmas story, there are various ways to understand the symbolism. The exact meaning given to the various aspects of the wreath are not as important as the story to which it invites us to listen.
The circle of the wreath reminds us of God Himself, His eternity and endless mercy, which has no beginning or end. The green of the wreath speaks of the hope that we have in God, the hope of newness, of renewal, of eternal life. Candles symbolize the light of God coming into the world through the birth of His son. The four outer candles represent the period of waiting during the four Sundays of Advent, which themselves symbolize the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.
The colors of the candles vary with different traditions, but there are usually three purple or blue candles, corresponding to the sanctuary colors of Advent, and one pink or rose candle. One of the purple candles is lighted the first Sunday of Advent, a Scripture is read, a short devotional or reading is given, and a prayer offered. On subsequent Sundays, previous candles are relighted with an additional one lighted. The pink candle is lighted on the third Sunday of Advent.
The light of the candles itself becomes an important symbol of the season. The light reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world that comes into the darkness of our lives to bring newness, life, and hope. The progression in the lighting of the candles symbolizes the various aspects of our waiting experience. As the candles are lighted over the four week period, it also symbolizes the darkness of fear and hopelessness receding and the shadows of sin falling away as more and more light is shed into the world. The flame of each new candle reminds the worshippers that something is happening, and that more is yet to come. Finally, the light that has come into the world is plainly visible as the Christ candle is lighted at Christmas, and worshippers rejoice over the fact that the promise of long ago has been realized.
The first candle is traditionally the candle of Expectation or Hope (or in some traditions, Prophecy). The remaining three candles of Advent may be associated with different aspects of the Advent story in different churches, or even in different years. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence for the remaining three Sundays might be Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Or Peace, Joy, Love. Or John the Baptist, the Magi, Mary. Or the Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment. Whatever sequence is used, the Scripture readings, prayers, lighting of the candles, the participation of worshipers in the service, all are geared to telling the story of redemption through God’s grace in the Incarnation. The third candle for the Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally Pink or Rose, and symbolizes Joy at the Advent of the Christ.
The center candle is called the Christ Candle, and is traditionally lighted on Christmas Eve or Day. The central location of the Christ Candle reminds us that the incarnation is the heart of the season, giving light to the world.