The Symbolism of the Advent Wreath

The Symbolism of the Advent Wreath: Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Prophets, JBap, and Mary.

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-26

In the Name of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You look surprised to see me standing in the chancel area and to see (Rebecca Fretty at the 8 am service by the lectern, Elizabeth Fitts and Melissa Liebre at the 10 am service at the prayer desks). You are probably wondering what in the world is going on now. We are changing things up a bit for you. And if you think this is bizarre, wait to you hear the different form of the prayers of the people we are using along with a different Eucharistic prayer and post communion prayer. Did you notice the change in the liturgical colors? Yes, the clergy the altar linen and hangings are Sarum blue instead of the green we’ve been wearing and using since Pentecost. Welcome to Advent!

Seriously now, today is the beginning of the Advent season and the beginning of the new liturgical year. It is one of my favorite liturgical seasons. I like Advent because it is marked by a spirit of expectation, anticipation, preparation, and longing. In Advent we are waiting for the birth of the Messiah, the Anointed One. Advent is a season of hope with the anticipation of a King who will rule over His people and His creation. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. How might we prepare for the birth of the Messiah? One way would be to fully embrace the meaning of Advent and the Advent Wreath. Today, some of you will be making an Advent Wreath in the parish hall after the 10 am service or at home and some of you will participate in the Advent course Marcia Josephson and I are facilitating over the next four weeks in the family room after this service. Regardless of which way you go, I would like to share the meaning of Advent and the Advent Wreath and to give you some questions to consider for each of the four weeks of Advent. I want to point out that if you do your own research, you will find that different faith traditions may use different color candles and may associate the candles with different people. I happened to prefer the one I am sharing with you today. You may notice the brand-new golf pencils in the pew. Please take one and write each of the four questions on the back of your Order of Service. The ushers have extra if needed.

First, you may notice that the Advent Wreath is in the shape of a circle, which has no beginning or end, symbolizing the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. The evergreens remind us of our eternal life in Christ. The wreath holds four candles which are lit over the four weeks of Advent and one on Christmas. The light of the flame is a visual reminder that Christ is “the light of the world.” “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” (Rebecca and Elizabeth). There are three Sarum blue candles and one rose candle, each representing 1,000 years. Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the Savior. During the first, second, and the fourth weeks of Advent we light blue candles. You may ask why we use Sarum blue candles. Before the Protestant Reformation and the publication of the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the Roman rite was obviously the only rite used in the Church throughout the world. However, in the 11th century, St. Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, had established a variation of the rite for use in Salisbury Cathedral and in that diocese. In this Sarum Rite (“Sarum” being the Latin word for “Salisbury”), blue was used for the season of Advent. Blue is the color historically associated with the Virgin Mary (often called Marian blue” as well as “Sarum blue,” and blue symbolized the night sky or darkness, an image present in many of the scriptures used in Advent. I want to give a shout out to the Holy Rollers who made the candles we are using for the Advent wreaths.

The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. On this day we celebrate that our waiting for the birth of Jesus celebrated on Christmas morning is almost over. Rose is a liturgical color that is used to signify joy, so we light the rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent. The clergy, the altar, and hangings should be donned in a rose color, but we don’t have them yet.

What is the meaning of each of the four candles on an Advent wreath? The first Advent candle, the one we lit at the beginning of the service is associated with the “patriarchs” and the “matriarchs” because we are an inclusive church. The patriarchs and matriarchs of the church are Abram, Sarai and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel. Today we are going to focus on Abram, Sarai and Hagar. In Genesis, 12:1-2 we read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’” (Rebecca and Melissa). Abram is to journey away from all that he knows, to leave it all behind, and go…somewhere. At the same time as being told to go, he is also being called to accompany God on a journey, not a fixed point but to a frame of mind. Furthermore, God tells Abram in Genesis 15:1-2, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be great.’” (Rebecca and Melissa). Abram, like us, was afraid and skeptical. Abram is 86 years old, and Sarai is 75. God may protect him but how in the world is this going to work with their age issue. That’s when Sarai takes matters into her own hands and Hagar enters the picture. You all can explore the rest of the story at your leisure but know that God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah (their new names) despite their doubt and taking matters into their own hands. Abraham and Sarah were called to go and to wait in God’s time and not their own time frame. This first candle reminds us that we are told to go and we are called to wait.

Where is God calling you this Advent season? What are you being called to wait on this Advent season? What frame of mind do you need to have to accompany God? If you want a homework assignment, please read the story in Genesis.

The second candle is associated with the prophets and their prophecies of “the one who is to come.” Those of you who know me well, know I am keen on the prophets – those who have gone before us and those who are right here in our midst. Yes, I do believe that we have prophetic people among us. Sister Joan’s book, The Time is Now, available at the Dogwood Gifts and Books, encourages all to have prophetic voices in the world. For this candle, I want to focus on the prophecy Matthew quoted from Isaiah 7:14:16. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us” (1:23). (Rebecca and Elizabeth). This is a prophecy about God’s imminent salivation of the people of God. The message is clear: once this child is born you should be on the lookout for salvation because it will only be a matter of time before God’s salvation breaks into the world. Matthew seems to be using this as a pledge for the future and that is what the prophets remind us to do – look to the future. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth looked to the future when she proclaimed upon hearing Mary’s greeting: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is the she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45). (Rebecca and Elizabeth).

My question for you to consider when you light this second candle in Advent: “How can you use your prophetic voice in this world? What is God calling you to speak about or to whom is God call you to speak to this Advent?

The third candle on the Advent wreath is associated with John the Baptist, or JBap has we affectionately called him in seminary. We know from the prophecy of Zechariah that John the Baptist was going to be no ordinary person. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77). (Rebecca and Melissa). JBap was one unique individual from his physical appearance and diet (clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around the waste and eating locust and honey) to his message. John demanded that the people change their way of life. They needed to ask God to forgive their sins and baptized. JBap was one humble dude. “I baptize with water. Among you stands one who you do not know, the one coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal (John 26-27).” (Rebecca and Melissa). The striking thing about John is that he was on a mission. He was the prophetic forerunner to Jesus.

My question for you to consider on the Third Sunday of Advent is: How can you be part of God’s mission on earth? What kind of Outreach is God calling you to do? Could you be called to work with Inspirica, an outreach for women, Pacific House, an outreach for men, Neighbor to Neighbor, people who need help with food security, or Domus, a program for at risk teens to name a few. I know that Melissa Liebre and Dan Broderick would love to tell you how you can be part of the mission of God as an Outreach volunteer.

The fourth candle is associated with my favorite girl in the Christian story – Mary, the mother of Jesus. We begin with the Annunciation. Mary, a young woman, is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she has found favor with God and will bear the son of the Most High and his name will be Jesus. Now Mary an astute woman questions how this can be since she is a virgin. Gabriel explains the mechanics to her, and Mary utters the most incredible words: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke1:38). (Rebecca and Elizabeth). Here I am. Three simple words yet they are most profound. I believe that although Mary did not know the full extent of what she was agreeing to, she probably was aware that she was agreeing to be part of God’s plan in the world. She was agreeing to bring the Messiah into the world for the people. The striking thing about Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel is that she did not try to steer the conversation or the mission of God in one direction or another. She accepted God’s plan or mission.

My question for you to consider on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is: Are you willing to stay open to what God is calling you to do and how do you going about opening yourself to God’s plan for you?

The last candle that we light is associated with the birth of baby Jesus, the arrival of Christmastide, and known as the “Christ candle.” We use the color white because it represents purity, virginity, innocence, and birth. And there you have it, “the rest of the story” on the Advent wreath.

Thank you for allowing me to share the meaning of Advent and the symbolism of the Advent wreath with you today in an unusual format. Thank you, Rebecca, Melissa, and Elizabeth for your participation. As we go forth into this Advent season, may you be blessed with a spirit of expectation, anticipation, preparation, and longing and may you be filled with joy at the birth of our Savior. Amen.