Great Expectations – The Four Candles of Advent

Tuesday, December 2, 2008, 09:09

Advent candles come in many colours – and this often owes as much to availability as to symbolism. Moreover, they are sometimes attached to Christmas wreaths, and sometimes placed on customised candlesticks, albeit at different heights – and sometimes at the same height. With all these variations on a theme, it would be interesting to find out why Christians light four Advent Candles, and not five, three, or any other number of them.

Christmas is not a moveable feast as is Easter. In Western Christianity, the first Sunday of Advent is the fourth one prior to Christmas Day, or the one that comes closest to November 30. When Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it is the last or fourth Sunday of Advent. In the Julian calendar used by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Advent begins on November 15, and lasts 40 days, rather than 4 weeks.

This year, the Sundays of Advent are as follows:

• November 30 – First Sunday of Advent

• December 7 – Second Sunday of Advent

• December 14 – Third Sunday of Advent

• December 21 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

Some sources say that the Advent wreath was an adaptation of a Germanic pre-Catholic rite, dating from a time when the people wanted to find something that would symbolise the banishing of the darkness from the “four corners of the world”. During wintertime, Scandinavians lit candles around a wheel, with prayers being offered to the god of light, begging him to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.

As happened with other pagan rituals, the four candles were metamorphosed to something that helped the faithful contemplate the “Four Treasures of Happiness” Expectation and Hope, Faith, Joy (the pink candle) and Peace; others put them as Love, Peace, Hope, and Joy. A couple of other variations are Hope, Peace, Joy, Love (in that order), and Hope, Preparation, Joy, Love. In some traditions, the first candle stands for prophecy.

There is also a tradition that purports to explain how each week represents a thousand years, and that the fourth candle therefore represents the passing of 4,000 years from the story of the Garden of Eden, to the Birth of the Saviour. Others say that they are a representation of the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of the Lord.

The three purple, violet, or dark blue candles signify the imminent arrival of royalty. The pink, rose, or white candle is lit on the third Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass. This is Gaudete Sunday, so called because of the first word in the biding prayers – Gaudate, which means ‘rejoice’. All four candles, together, remind us of the “four ps” of Advent – the preparation, purification, penance and prayer that each one of us must undergo during this important period of the Liturgical year.

Increasingly often, a white candle, “The Christ Candle” is lit and placed in the centre of the wreath, or at the top of the elongated candlestick, to represent the birth of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, the Candles of Advent are associated with Biblical personalities, or Biblical happenings, all thematically arranged to draw attention to the main event – Christmas. So, one might celebrate John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi; or Bethlehem, Shepherds, and Angels; or the Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfilment.

Originally, Advent was a fast of forty days in preparation for Christmas, beginning on the day after the feast of St. Martin (November 12), and known in some quarter as “St. Martin’s Lent”. The candles are lit, one a week, to recall the Lord’s birth, and to connect it with His Second Coming. Adventus, the Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming”, gives us the word “Advent”.

The light of the candles, apart from the candles themselves, is also an important symbol of Advent. It reminds us that the Son of God is the Light of the World.

Interesting to note is that the circular shape of the Advent wreath symbolises eternity. Moreover, the use of evergreen leaves symbolises the immortality of our soul and the new everlasting life brought about by the birth of Christ.

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