It Is the Advent Season Now: The Symbolism
Editor’s note: The author of this series is from Hong Kong, and is an author and teacher who serves the mainland Chinese church. Written while she was studying and serving in the United States, it offers a thorough and useful explanation of Advent. It is a good resource for helping Chinese friends, seekers, and young Christians understand many of traditional meanings and symbols they encounter at Christmas, and can help connect them to the historic global church. For other articles in this series on advent, please see the following: Tradition & Faith, Origins & History, and Tools for Advent at Home.
As we try to [partake in] the tradition of Advent, I anticipate there might be questions about the practice and symbolism involved. Before I try to address them, we need to know that since this is an extra-biblical tradition, there is no consensus on these matters, although we do find some similarities among the various churches.
1. Four Sundays before Christmas Day
Advent celebration emerged gradually, first in places influenced by the church in the Eastern Roman Empire. By the mid 6th century, the Catholic masses began to also have Advent themes. Perhaps it was due to the genius effort of Pope Gregory the Great (590-615) that four Advent Sundays were officially included in the liturgical calendar, but the four Sundays were not a standard number either. The Eastern church had forty days of preparation, which makes it six Sundays. In America, since the forty days of fasting runs into Thanksgiving, the Eastern Orthodox Church allows some leeway to temporarily suspend the fast. That means it extends the Advent season even longer. Forty in scripture is the number for trial, testing, making it probably easy to understand why they chose forty days. But why four Sundays? It is mostly likely that the four Sundays corresponds to the four hundred intertestamental years between Malachi and the gospel of Matthew – a period of God’s people longing for the coming of the Savior.
2. The Advent wreath
The origin of the wreath and candles could very well be pagan. Some find similarities between this Advent symbol and that of the German/Scandinavian pagan celebrations of Saturnalia, the sun god. Whatever its origin, the Advent wreath has been given new meaning by Christians. The evergreen on a ring represents the eternal life Christ brings to us, and also God’s ever-fresh, non-ending covenantal love for us. The lighting of the candles symbolizes Christ as the light to the world of darkness. The tradition is to light a candle each week, accompanied with the reading of relevant scripture. In the first week, one candle is lit, and the second week, two, and so on. The idea is that as Christmas Day approaches, the light gets brighter. On Christmas Day, the Christ candle is lit. It is usually a bigger candle in the middle. Almost all traditions use the white color for the Christ candle, symbolizing that Christ is the true light, the light of lights.
As the Catholic church grew and embellished, it adopted a system of liturgical colors to assist worship. By the 12th century, Rome began to adopt purple, the color of penitence, for Advent. The use of a penitence color might have been influenced by the Eastern church. Purple candles were used on the Advent wreath. The Catholic church also used a lectionary to assist worship service. A lectionary is a set of fixed scriptures to be read for each respective church occasion. On the third Sunday of Advent, the lectionary reading began with the word “Rejoice.” Therefore, the church used a pink/rose candle instead of purple. Pink/rose is the color of joy. Here it signifies that the period of penitence is about to end and the people should rejoice.
In Catholic theology, penitence is also a form of works; something you do to merit salvation. Many Protestant churches that celebrate Advent do not usually endorse this Catholic idea. So some change the color of the candles into royal blue or light blue (such as the United Methodist Church) just to differentiate it from the Catholic meaning. Blue is a color traditionally associated with the cloak of Mary. Here it represents either royalty or the color of the sky on the night Christ was born. However, some other churches retain the traditional purple and pink but assign new meanings to them. Purple represents the coming of the royal king and pink, the newness of the creation. Some other churches use red candles instead. Those from liturgical traditions might regard red and green as secular colors. Red in the liturgical colors is a color for the Holy Spirit or for the martyrs, not for Christmas. But, it could well be that some of these churches want to recover the tradition of Advent with a view, not so much to redeem the Catholic tradition, but to give new meaning to the secular view of Christmas common these days.
There are often meanings assigned to the four candles. However, this is an area with the least consensus among all traditions. For those that do assign meaning to the candles, there is usually more consensus on the first candle: the candle of anticipation, expectation, hope, or prophecy. The next three candles vary from church to church, tradition to tradition. Some say they represent John the Baptist, Mary and the Magi; others, Annunciation, Proclamation, and Fulfillment. It seems that churches with a liberal orientation have shifted the focus from Christ himself to the benefits Christ brings. So, the three candles represent Peace, Love and Joy. The Reformed churches generally assign Bethlehem, Shepherds and Angles, and Magi to the three candles, but that could well be because of the influence of an Advent family devotional book, Christ in Christmas: A Family Advent Celebration, co-authored by such Reformed writers as R. C. Sproul and James Boice.
It appears to me that there exists a certain degree of uneasiness about the Advent ceremony within the Protestant/Reformed tradition. The uneasiness might have to do with their struggle to strike a balance between retrieving a useful tradition and differentiating themselves from Roman Catholicism. The uneasiness can be seen in their deliberate de-emphasis of Mary in the celebration. I personally believe this is an over-correction. The angel’s annunciation to Mary is an important, and certainly relevant, part of the Advent theme but Catholics have erred in that they focus on Mary instead of the one who was inside her. Their error should not prevent us from putting the focus in the correct place. The angel's message to Mary concerning who Jesus was and what his ministry would be is crucial to our Advent celebration.
As we can see, there is a great deal of flexibility regarding what symbolizes what in the Advent celebration. The flexibility should tell us that as we celebrate Advent, we should not let ourselves be bogged down with rigidity concerning the symbolism involved. It is not the form that is important here. The candles are merely a tool to [reflective of a specific traditional meaning]. Just as there is not a single standard Christmas sermon to be preached, so is there no one standard version of the Advent celebration. The gospel message is too rich to be contained by such limited symbolism, and the important thing is that we need to have a sound biblical basis for it.
3. The spirit of the Advent season
Traditionally, Advent focused mainly on the first coming of Christ. But evangelical Protestant churches that have recovered the tradition of Advent celebration like to emphasize the advent of the second coming of Christ. After all, the advent of the Second Coming is what is explicitly taught in Scripture. If the Second Coming is in view, it seems that Advent celebration could well extend beyond the reading of the Old Testament prophets and the beginning of the gospels.
It must be noted here that while the Catholic church emphasizes penitence being the spirit of the season, the liberal churches emphasize joy, peace, and love. Their de-emphasis of penitence is not so much because of their rejection of Catholic works-based theology, but their rejection of the fallen-ness of mankind. Of course, since they have also rejected the Second Coming of Christ, their Advent celebrations generally stress more humanist values, such as a focus on the family, loving the children, charity toward the poor and the needy, facilitating or promoting peace in human societies, preserving the earth, etc.
As a grace-oriented church, we, on the one hand, do not endorse the Catholic view of penitence of the Advent season; yet on the other hand, we do not lose sight of the very fact that because of our sin, Christ humbled himself and took the form of man, so that he might become one of us in order to deliver us from sin. Joy without the self-awareness of sin is carnal; penitence without knowledge of grace contradicts the very purpose of the Advent season.