Advent wreaths contain many symbols, are catechetical tools - Catholic Courier

Advent wreaths contain many symbols, are catechetical tools

The Advent wreath is one of the most recognizable signs of Advent. At this time of year, the wreaths adorned with four candles can be seen on dining tables and in Christian churches all around the world.

But why do Catholics use Advent wreaths? What do they symbolize?

Each element of an Advent wreath is a symbol

The traditional Advent wreath is a circular wreath constructed of evergreen branches into which four candles are inserted, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which in 2021 produced an explanatory video about the wreaths. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. Typically, three candles are purple and one candle is pink or rose-colored, but white candles sometimes are used instead.

Each component of the wreath has meaning, starting with the wreath’s circular shape.

“The wreath is continuous, so it’s like continuous, eternal life with God,” explained Mercy Sister Laurie Orman, middle-school religion teacher at St. Mary School in Canandaigua. “The evergreens also kind of symbolize continuous life.”

Like a circle, God has no beginning and no end, and God’s love for us is eternal, noted James Hay, a 2021 graduate of St. Francis-St. Stephen School. Last year, Hay and his fellow eighth-graders at the Geneva school created a video to explain the symbolism and significance of the Advent wreath.

“It can also symbolize God’s eternal love for us,” Hay noted in the video.

The three purple candles of the Advent wreath symbolize the prayer, penance, preparatory sacrifices and good works Catholics are called to engage in during this liturgical season, according to the USCCB.

The pink or rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday.

“Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas,” according to the USCCB.

Similarly, priests wear purple vestments at Mass on the first, second and fourth Sundays of Advent, but wear rose-colored vestments on Gaudete Sunday.

Candles represent the light of Christ dispelling the darkness

Regardless of their color, the candles themselves are symbols, too. Their light serves as a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world who came down to dispel the darkness sin creates in the world and in our hearts, alumnus Jamie Ninestine explained in the St. Francis-St. Stephen School video.

Lighting the candles one by one not only symbolizes the anticipation that builds as the world waits for Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming, according to the USCCB.

“Each week a new candle is lit, gradually dispelling more and more of the darkness as we grow closer to Christ at Christmastime. By the final week of Advent, all four candles are lit, reminding us that the time to rejoice has finally arrived,” added classmate Tonia Long.

But the arrival of Christmas Day does not mean families have to pack away their Advent wreaths, Sister Orman remarked.

“At the end of the four weeks, you can put the white candle in the center, which is the Christ candle for Jesus’ birth. You continue lighting that for the 12 days of Christmas, up until the baptism of Jesus,” she said.

“Advent is a time of preparation to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, but we also prepare our hearts for the second coming of Jesus,” noted Father Carlos Sanchez, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva. “The church teaches us that Jesus is coming back to establish his kingdom of love, mercy and justice.”

Catechists, parents can use Advent wreath as a teaching tool

The Advent wreath is a visible representation of our journey through Advent and toward Jesus’ birth and second coming, Sister Orman said. The visible and tangible nature of the Advent wreath make it a helpful tool for catechists, she added.

“I think it’s a great symbol that we have that can be used for education,” she remarked.

Parents also can use an Advent wreath to help pass along their Catholic faith to their children. Many parishes provide families enrolled in faith-formation programs with prayers to use when lighting an Advent wreath, so it’s a relatively easy way for parents to help their children understand the reason for and significance of the Advent and Christmas seasons, she said.

“It can be a great thing to help families move into the season of Christmas without it all being about the hustle and bustle and buying of packages. It can be that prayerful part of it,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Why Do Catholics…? is a feature series that aims to answer questions about what Catholics do and believe. To suggest a question to feature, email Newsroom@CatholicCourier.com.

Tags: Christmas, Monroe County West, Ontario County News, USCCB, Why do Catholics?
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