Advent is the first season in the church year, comprising the four weeks before Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin, “to come,” and the church has observed Advent as weeks of preparation since the fifth century with themes of watchfulness, preparation, and hope infusing this season. Together we both anticipate the celebration of God’s coming in the form of the Christ child and the final coming of Christ in the time to come. Blue or purple is the appointed color for the season.
A Few Notes on Current Practices for Celebrating Advent
- Lutheran churches observe Advent in numerous ways. Most light the advent wreath during the four weeks of Advent, adding one new candle each week. These candles are typically lit during the Gathering rite. More about Advent wreath and candles.
Some congregations hold midweek services during the Advent season.
Many congregations experience the challenge of celebrating Advent in a culture that celebrates Christmas during the month of December. The commercialism of Christmas can so easily creep into the faith practices of the church.
Some congregations hold Advent Festivals for the Sunday school or Advent musical events to help the faithful understand how to keep Advent amid the culture’s early celebration of Christmas. Advent devotional booklets for home use are also a helpful resource.
Theological issues related to Advent often come up when discussing worship planning, especially related to musical matters. On the one hand, Advent is a time to prepare, to sing music related to the impending birth of Christ. On the other hand, as Christians, we know that Christ is already present with us. It is important that Advent is not a “pretend time,” as if Jesus had never come into the world.
Focusing on the waiting for the light of Christ in a dark world and on the eschatological nature of Advent can help make Advent a more depth-filled, honest time of waiting.
- Keeping this in mind, it is wise to make musical decisions in Advent (as in all other times) with care. Some assemblies do not sing any Christmas carols in Advent, remaining true to the spirit of watching and waiting that characterizes the season. Other congregations, for pastoral or teaching reasons, begin to sing some Christmas carols in Advent. If a new Christmas hymn is to be learned, for example, Advent might be a time for teaching.
Advent Wreath and Candles
What is the Advent Wreath and How is it used in worship?
As Christians, we use symbols to express visually the basic tenets of our faith and as reminders of the pilgrimage of our life in Christ. Symbols can have heightened meaning for us when associated with particular seasons of that journey. One such symbol is the Advent wreath.
The Advent wreath has its roots in the pre-Christian practices of northern Europe. People sought the return of the sun in the dark time of the year (at the winter solstice) by lighting candles and fires. As early as the middle Ages, Christians used fire and light to represent Christ’s coming into the world. Using this same symbolism, the Advent wreath developed a few centuries ago in Germany as a sign of the waiting and hopeful expectation of the return in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The wreath, a circle, came to represent the eternal victory over death through Jesus Christ. The evergreens were a sign of the faithfulness of God to God’s people, even in death, and the lighted candles were a reminder of the light of Christ brought into the world.
This symbolism can be just as strong for us today. As is the case with all symbols, they speak most loudly to remind us of God’s promises of life when they are drawn directly out of our daily experience and environment. One should consider using only natural materials from God’s creation when making an Advent wreath. Evergreens come in many varieties and may be treated with a flame retardant substance.
Branches of holly, laurel, and other green shrubs, which retain their freshness longer than pine, may also be used. The circular shape, a symbol of eternal life, is most important. Using an alternative shape, such as a log, would diminish the meaning of the symbol, which is no longer a circle. There is no one prescribed color for the candles, although several traditions are current. Four natural colored candles are always appropriate and symbolize the Light for which we wait. Four blue candles matches the blue used for the season, a color representing hope.