"Hark, the glad sound! The Savior comes, the Savior promised long!"
- Philip Doddridge
When much of your life is centered in the church, you don't need advertising slogans, department store displays or a downtown blaze of light to tell you Christmas is on the way. Sunday schools plan programs, choirs rehearse music and the worship committee schedules special events long before Santa arrives at the mall.
Advent, that period in the church year when we celebrate the coming of Christ, normally begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Eve. In many churches the Advent wreath, an evergreen circle with four small candles often surrounding a larger "Christ candle" in the center, becomes a visible symbol of the season, and lighting those candles highlights the worship services throughout the month.
While customs of the Advent wreath vary, including the assigning of a different meaning for each of the four candles - 1) Prophet's Candle; 2) Bethlehem Candle; 3) Shepherd's Candle; and 4) Angel Candle - the predominant symbolism is in the light. By increasing the brightness of our wreath as the weeks go by, we are both anticipating and illustrating the One who said, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12).
Another tradition offers a dual meaning for the candles: The four Sundays of Advent, as already explained, and the presumed 4,000 years between the creation of the first human beings (presumed to be Adam and Eve) and the birth of Jesus, of whom the Apostle John wrote, "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4).
In Alaska, where their Advent days are nearly as dark as their nights, Christians speak of Advent as "the coming of the light." Because the Winter Solstice, that dividing line between increasingly shorter and gradually lengthening days, occurs just before Christmas each year, they have a literal understanding of Jesus as "the light of the world."
And in Germany, where Christians question how we Americans came up with symbolic names for each candle, their candles symbolize the Christ Child traveling toward the human heart. One lighted candle means Jesus has just begun that journey and, as each succeeding candle glows, the "light of the world" appears to be closer to those who anticipate his coming. Finally, as Jesus arrives at "the portals of your heart," German Christians sing Georg Weissel's hymn, "Lift up your heads, ye might gates; behold, the King of Glory waits ... The Savior of the world is here!"
We're not certain when the Advent wreath first appeared, but we do know the tradition began in the Roman Catholic Church and expanded to the German Lutherans following the Protestant Reformation. Today wreaths with slightly varying symbolism are found in churches of nearly all denominations. When the third candle is lighted, however, a special celebration is more apt to take place in Catholic rather than Protestant churches, for that's the first Sunday the light is greater than the darkness. As one worshipper explains, "When the first two candles are lighted, two candles are still dark, but when we light the third candle, the light wins!"
So, as Advent returns year after year, we continue to combine the holy and the festive, accompanied by the familiar and beloved carols. It's doubtful we sing or hear as much music any other time of year as we do during Advent, the literal prelude to Christmas.
Today, and on the remaining Sundays before the "light" comes, perhaps we'll sing the 13th-century plainsong, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," or the later hymn by Charles Wesley, likely composed while he and his brother John lived and ministered to early colonists in Georgia, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus."
Today, and for those remaining, expectant days, may you and yours have a festive and truly holy Advent.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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