The Advent ring or wreath is a great way of telling and taking-part in the story that leads us to Christmas. They are easy to make, and have great visual impact as the centre-piece of a dining table in the home (or, on a larger scale, in a church building) and as such they present a good opportunity to invite neighbours to learn how to make a festive decoration and understand their symbolism.
To form a wreath, you will need a ring of oasis (available from florists or garden centres), and a selection of evergreen foliage – holly, ivy, pine – to insert into the ring and arrange.
Whether you go for a wreath or not, you will need candles, with appropriate holders. The candles are lit, sequentially, on each of the four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas (and at the dinner table will probably be lit at each meal in between): one candle on the first Sunday, two on the second, three on the third, and four on the fourth. Traditionally, one would use:
a central white candle, which may be larger than the others, symbolising Jesus the light who is coming into the world;
surrounded by four candles – three blue, purple, or red candles and one pink candle.
Here, you have several choices. Some people save lighting the white candle until Christmas Day, or perhaps Christmas Eve; while others light it each time the candles are lit, lighting the other candles from it. (In a church setting, this candle may even be processed in, with all other lights out; and the congregation might or might not follow it in.)
Blue or purple are the liturgical colours (that is, the colours of Church symbolism) of Advent. Blue is associated with expectation, our waiting attentively for Jesus’ return. Purple is associated with repentance, our ‘turning around,’ orienting our lives with the perspective of heaven rather than the perspective of earth, with God’s ways rather than a stance of human independence. Red is a traditional non-liturgical alternative, a western cultural association with this festive season.
The pink candle stems from a Mediaeval tradition of making the third Sunday of Advent and Lent a moment of relief in a season of pentitence. The third Sunday in Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin ‘to rejoice,’ a theme taken from Isaiah 35 which is often read in churches on this Sunday, and picked up in a traditional song of praise at the opening of the service.
There are also a number of variations in what the candles symbolise – allowing for plenty of creative celebration – but the most common symbolism in the Anglican tradition is: the first candle for the Patriarchs, the second for the Prophets, the third for John the Baptist, and the fourth for the Virgin Mary.
The Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) are Abraham (and his wife Sarah); their son Isaac (and his wife Rebekah); and their son Jacob (who had twelve sons by four women). Their stories, recorded in the book of Genesis, are messy, to say the least; and ground Jesus’ story in a particular people called by God through no merit of their own, chosen to be the means by which all peoples would be blessed. Abraham is the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, three faith traditions very much in conflict today – a big-picture expression of the conflicts we see in any family.
The Prophets were those sent by God to call his unfaithful people back to him, back to their calling to be a people through whom all peoples would be blessed. At times, their unfaithfulness caused God to use those other peoples to judge his own people; yet again and again, it is when God’s people are sent against their will to other nations that they most fully express the calling to be a blessing. Among the writings of the prophets, recorded in the latter part of the library we know as the Old Testament, there are several ecstatic utterances that point to future events of judgement and restoration for God’s people, which Christians believe are (or will be) fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
John the Baptist was the one sent by God to be the last in the line of prophets who pointed to Jesus’ arrival – in continuity with the likes of Isaiah, to prepare the way. John was a relative of Jesus (we use the term ‘cousin,’ but that should not be understood in the very limited sense it has in western cultures today), whose birth, like that of Jesus, was a God-initiated disruption of expectation. It is John’s week that employs a pink candle to speak of a moment of joy. John’s presence at the table also reminds us of our own baptism, of the promises we made or which were made on our behalf, and which we may or might not be continuing in.
The Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus, the one chosen by God to bear his own coming into the world as fully-God and fully-human, in order to lift humanity, forever, into the unity in community that God enjoys. She is an example to us in obedient partnering with God in the good news, to be worshipped in the sense of given true worth (whereas folk-Catholicism venerates Mary too highly, folk-Protestantism errs in the other direction: those uncomfortable with the use of the word worship in relation to Mary ought to remember that it is an optional vow for a husband to promise in relation to his wife in the Marriage Service. In Church of England tradition, one of the ways we honour Mary is to pray with her – the Magnificat, based on her song in Luke 1 – each evening). The key thing to remember is that Mary’s candle is not the pink candle. People commonly assume that the pink candle is for Mary, because we associate pink with girls. But in western art Mary is traditionally presented in blue, and until very recently in western culture red/pink were associated with masculinity and blue with femininity (interestingly, pink is now being reclaimed as a masculine colour in men’s fashion).
You might like to say a prayer at the lighting of each candle. Prayers for each of the four candles and at the lighting of the central candle on Christmas Day (taken from Common Worship: Times and Seasons) you could use include:
God of Abraham and Sarah, and all the patriarchs of old, you are our Father too. Your love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of David. Help us in preparing to celebrate his birth to make our hearts ready for your Holy Spirit to make his home among us. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming into the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus, light of the world, born in David’s city of Bethlehem, born like him to be a king: be born in our hearts at Christmas, be King of our lives today. Amen.
God our Father, you spoke to the prophets of old of a Saviour who would bring peace. You helped them to spread the joyful message of his coming kingdom. Help us, as we prepare to celebrate his birth, to share with those around us the good news of your power and love. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming into the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus, light of the world, the prophets said you would bring peace and save your people in trouble. Give peace in our hearts at Christmas and show all the world God’s love. Amen.
God our Father, you gave to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age a son called John. He grew up strong in spirit, prepared the people for the coming of the Lord, and baptized them in the Jordan to wash away their sins. Help us, who have been baptized into Christ, to be ready to welcome him into our hearts, and to grow strong in faith by the power of the Spirit. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming into the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus, light of the world, John told the people to prepare, for you were very near. As Christmas grows closer day by day, help us to be ready to welcome you now. Amen.
God our Father, the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she was to be the mother of your Son. Though Mary was afraid, she responded to your call with joy. Help us, whom you call to serve you, to share like her in your great work of bringing to our world your love and healing. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming into the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus, light of the world, blessed is Gabriel, who brought good news; blessed is Mary, your mother and ours. Bless your Church preparing for Christmas; and bless us your children, who long for your coming. Amen.
And on Christmas Day:
God our Father, today the saviour is born and those who live in darkness are seeing a great light. Help us, who greet the birth of Christ with joy, to live in the light of your Son and to share the good news of your love. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who has come into the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus, Light of light, you have come among us. Help us to live by your light to shine as lights in your world. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.