What is Advent?
Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Roman Catholic Church. On the first day of Advent, which begins this year on November 28th, the Church celebrates its New Year's Day. The date for the beginning of Advent falls each year on the Sunday closest to November 30th - the feast day of Saint Andrew the Apostle.
Is Advent the same as Christmas?
Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that Advent is part of the Christmas celebration. In fact, Advent is a separate time of preparation all its own. For the Catholic Church, Christmas doesn't begin until the first Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve and it continues until the "Octave of the Epiphany" on January 14th.
Advent is given to us as a time to prepare our souls for the coming of the Lord. This season is very similar to Lent which helps us to prepare for Easter. In modern times we are tempted to skip over the penitential aspects of Advent and focus on the joy of Christmas. This is a great tragedy. Focusing only on the joy denies the truth: the Christ Child is our Lord and Savior Who will suffer and die for our salvation.
What is the history of Advent?
Originally Advent was celebrated over forty days, just like the Lenten season. This has now been shortened to four weeks, but the symbolism remains. You may notice another similarity to Lent when you attend Mass; although we still sing the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, we no longer sing the song of the angels - the Gloria. We will sing this song anew with the angels on Christmas day - just as they did over 2000 years ago.
The Scripture readings during Mass remind us of all the prophecies that point to the Lord's coming. We are called to keep watch and to leave behind our sinful ways. We also hear the recurring theme of a light shining through darkness. In Isaiah 60:19 we are reminded of this promise: "The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory."
What is the meaning of the Advent Wreath?
Since circles have no beginning and no end, the circular shape of the Advent Wreath is used to symbolize God the Father and eternal life. The wreath holds four candles which are lit over the four weeks of Advent. The light of the flame is a visual reminder that Christ is "The Light of the World" (John 8:12). There are three violet (purple) 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.
Violet is a liturgical color that is used to signify a time of penance, sacrifice, and prayer. During the first, second, and the fourth weeks of Advent we light violet candles. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. On this day we celebrate that our waiting for Christmas 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.
Traditionally, each of the four candles on an Advent wreath has their own meaning. These meanings are simply illustrated in The Four Weeks of Advent Pewter Advent Wreath. The first Sunday of Advent symbolizes Hope with the Prophet's Candle reminding us that Jesus is coming. The second Sunday of Advent symbolizes Faith with the Bethlehem Candle reminding us of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. The third Sunday of Advent symbolizes Joy with the Shepherd's Candle reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the coming birth of Jesus. The fourth Sunday symbolizes Peace with the Angel's Candle reminding us of the message of the angels: "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men."
When Advent Wreaths are decorated the materials often have symbolic meaning. The use of evergreens reminds us of our eternal life with Christ, holly represents the crown of thorns from the Passion of Jesus, and pinecones symbolize Christ's Resurrection.
How do I involve my children with our Advent Wreath?
Advent is a great way to keep children focused on preparing for the coming of the Christ Child instead of on materialistic desires. Each new week of Advent begins at Mass with the lighting of a new candle on the parish Advent Wreath. Our parish family is connected to our personal family when we light our own Advent Wreath at home. Explain to your children the meaning of this week's candle and what they should focus on during the coming week.
A fun way to keep kids involved is to take your children out on a nature hunt to gather the holly, berries, evergreen, and pinecones to decorate the Advent Wreath. Explain to them the Christian symbolism of each item and then let them arrange the items on your wreath. Please keep in mind that the items may become flammable as they dry out. Before using your collected items you can soak them in water or find a craft spray that is fire resistant. Also be aware that many of the berries found on plants this time of year are poisonous for children and pets, so please use caution (or pick out silk decorations from your favorite craft store).
Another idea comes from Eileen W. a customer from Virginia. Eileen shared this Advent family tradition:
"When my two brothers and I were children, every night before we opened the Advent Calendar door we had to recite a little poem my dad and a friend made up: 'Let us remember as we play this Christmas game / It was a night so long ago that baby Jesus came.'
It was a neat way of making the calendar a little prayer. My own children do this now and they, too, love the tradition. They think it's really neat that Uncle Pat, Uncle Mike and I used to say the exact same prayer each night. I've passed this little prayer on to many of my friends and am happy to share it with all of you as well."