by Sophie Burk
If you find yourself in a church sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you will likely notice a few changes. A wreath, made of evergreen and arranged in a circle, may be placed near the altar or at the front of the sanctuary. Four candles sit around it, sometimes with a fifth at the center. The service may begin with a short time dedicated to the lighting of a number of these candles, along with a reading from scripture or offering of a special prayer. If you have experienced any of these customs during worship, welcome to Advent.
Though it varies among traditions, the symbolism of the Advent wreath holds great significance in its relation to the season. Each piece– the wreath itself and the individual candles– has its own meaning that contributes to our understanding of this important period. First, the evergreen branches of the wreath and their circular arrangement remind us of God’s eternity and unending love, as well as the everlasting life we are promised in His son, Jesus. The purple color of the candles represents a time of prayer and sacrifice that we find ourselves in as we anticipate the nativity of Christ. Each candle is also tied to a theme of Advent. On the first Sunday we light the “Prophet’s candle,” symbolizing the hope and good news of Jesus’ birth. Next, we light the “Bethlehem candle,” a representation of faith and reminder of the journey Mary and Joseph made to the place where Christ was born. The third Sunday brings the lighting of the “Shepherd’s candle,” which in some traditions is a light pink color, meant to represent joy. Finally, the Sunday before Christmas, the “Angel’s candle” is lit, a symbol of peace shared by the angels in their message to the world on that holy night. Some Advent wreaths include a fifth candle in the middle that is pure white and called the “Christ candle.” This is lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the entrance of the Light of the World1 into our time, and generally remains after the other candles are removed for the Christmas season.
Despite the illumination of candles within the church, I have always associated the season of Advent with darkness– frigid nights spent bundled up to head to church for an evening service, walk through a live nativity, or sing carols. The literal dark of winter surrounds this period in my mind, a still and quiet contrast to the daytime bustle of more exciting Christmas celebrations. As a child, I always resented this aspect of the season– it seemed I was always being dragged somewhere in the dark and cold, in a dress and tights, when all I wanted was to be comfortably warm at home. The winter’s chill never fails to cause an inner revolt over any outing past the sun’s disappearance. However, with an ever-growing understanding of the Christian faith has come a peacefulness during this season of lightless quiet. The deeper meaning of Advent ignites a hope and appreciation in a time when the change in weather brings to so many of us an emotional bleakness.
This understanding is one taught directly by scripture, throughout the stories we hear at Advent. The Bible distinctly shows us that God moves in the darkness- He does not wait for the light, because He is the light. As we focus on the coming of Christ, we are reminded of several major events that occur during the dark of night. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Father leads the Magi to His Son using a star, which cannot be bound like the stars we know– shining both day and night.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’…they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:1-2, 9)
They come from far away and do not know where they are going, but the light of the Lord calls to them and they know they must follow. In Luke, we see that God gives light to the shepherds as well– in the form of angels who appear to them and light up the dark fields, telling them of a baby who would bring great joy. And that baby is born in darkness, in the cold of night, the cold of this world.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’” (Luke 2:8-11)
What our Father shows us, at both the beginning and end of Jesus’ incarnate life, is that the darkness has no hold on Him. Looking beyond this season of Jesus’ birth, we are reminded of the next time our Lord is laid to rest in darkness– in a tomb in Jerusalem,2 where again the shadows are rendered powerless. From the very moment He entered this earth, God was showing us His intention: the vanquishing of the true darkness– our sin. We light the Advent wreath gradually, so that when it is at its full brightness on Christmas Eve it may remind us of that night when every shadow of death and darkness of sin was chased from this earth. There is no place for them in the light of Jesus. Yes, as we wait on Christmas, as we wait on the Light, we may experience darkness and cold. God calls us to engage with this experience, though we may shiver. He calls us into the night because He is there waiting to meet us. Engaging with the dark grants us the opportunity to engage with the Light, Jesus Christ, and to allow Him to guide us. And if, as a baby tucked away in a stable, He can illuminate the darkness of the entire world, how much more can He illuminate the darkness within our hearts? Though the night may be full of fear, this reminder of Advent we have: our God is not afraid of the dark, and if we allow ourselves to embrace it we will find that we are embraced by Him as well.
Sophie Burk is a second year student at UVA, studying Environmental Science and Religious Studies.
This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.
- John 8:12
- Luke 23:53
- Richie, Laura. “The Advent Wreath & Candles – Meaning, Symbolism and History.” Crosswalk.com. Crosswalk.com, November 2, 2021. https://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/christmas-and-advent/advent-wreath-candles-understanding-the-meaning-history-tradition.html.