The Advent Wreath is a domestic Christian tradition that is practised in the homes of the Faithful during the season and time of Advent. This is not a liturgical norm and should not be placed in the sanctuary of the Church, but is a custom that belongs to the home. The wreath’s candles are not considered “cultus” – the Latin word cultus referring to the definitive form, actual arrangement, and authorised execution of a religious observance, rite, or ritual as defined by the Catholic Church. Cultus also refers to the veneration and the homage that is paid to the Saints (Hardon, 2000). The candles of the Advent wreath are not used for any ritualistic, or liturgical purposes in reference to the celebration of sacred liturgy. There is also no referential rubric or instruction mentioning the candles of the Advent Wreath as a liturgical practice within the church and sanctuary in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Thus, the Advent Wreath is a tradition that is in alignment with the same status of that of having hot cocoa at Christmas-time, or the hanging of Christmas stockings in the home.
The Advent Wreath is postulated to have originated from the peoples with Germanic and Scandinavian descent. It featured a lighted wreath usually lit during the darkest and coldest days of winter as a sign of future hope in the warmth of a spring that was to come. It was introduced as a Christian practice around the 1800s and became popular as a way to mark the liturgical season of Advent.
Still, the Advent Wreath has its place in heralding and reminding us of the Light of Christ that triumphs in any darkness. The second candle that is lit during the second Sunday of Advent, recalls the theme of Peace as it heralds the coming of the Prince of Peace. It is also known as the “Bethlehem” candle as it remembers the journey that Joseph and Mary embarked on. Implicit in the reflection of Joseph and Mary’s journey and the infancy narratives of Jesus, is the teaching of the theological virtue of faith. Peace as a corollary, comes when Faith is exercised.
In the Old Testament, the word “faith” in Hebrew is spoken of as emunah, meaning to “to support” or “steadfastness” (Strong, 1890, 530). While the western understanding of Faith places the action on the one whom you may have faith in, the Hebrew lexicon places the emphasis of Emunah on the verbial and active action of the person who is acting to support the Work and the Will of God – This is seen in Exodus 17:12:
“As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.
Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they took a rock and put it under him and he sat on it. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady until sunset.”
In Exodus 17:12, the battle was won because Aaron and Hur were doing all they could to emunah (support) the hands of Moses, while Moses was seen to be steadfast in the assurance of God’s emunah and promises (Pope, 1909). From this we can see that Faith, is dependent on a two-way dialogue between God and man. Faith comes to fruition when man is wholly reliant on the emunah of God – the surety that God will act and support us, and also upon the emunah of man towards God – how we act and move to support the circumstances that will see God’s promises come to being, even when we do not understand what is happening about us.
The Fiat of Mary and the journeys that Mary and Joseph take, first, to Bethlehem, then, to Egypt, reflect this emunah. They did what they could to support the Will of God by being docile to His directions, and in their journey, we see also a complete trust in the emunah of God. God would provide for their needs, wherever they went, and God will fight on their behalf to act speedily and to pick them out of any harm’s way.
The virtue of Faith is theological, because it has God as its object. It is also part of the three pillars of Faith, Hope, and Love that emunah the entire life of a Christian. These three virtues are so fundamental and intertwined that faith without love and the works of charity is false and dead, while someone who professes to love, but does not hope, cannot be said to have loved truly, as love without hope, is desperation. Love without faith, is defined as mere sentimentality. Hope, absent of faith, is delusional and wishful thinking. While hope, devoid of love is self-indulgent. The opposite of hope being a fatalistic despair, which is a sin, rather than pessimism, a psychological condition, means that faith without hope, is impossible (Kreeft, 1988).
St. Paul defines faith according to three realms: First, faith in the bodily sense, is dependent on the works of love and obedience. This can be seen in Hebrews 11, where the faith of the patriarchs was clearly defined in what they did to emunah the work of God. Second, faith on the plane of the soul is predicated on the level of emotional trust and intellectual belief in God. Third, faith in the spirit sphere is the act of will of an individual to say “Yes” to God. The third condition, being, according to St. Paul, the place where faith truly begins (Kreeft, 1988).
Faith is also a virtue that begins from the right example of modelling by first, parents, second, godparents, sponsors, catechists, and formators, third, by the community and mentors in the faith. Next, faith is also a grace that is gifted from God. Having being gifted, it is also a gift that needs nurturing.
Advent thus presents a perfect opportunity to recall the faith journeys of the patriarchs, the faith journeys taken by the apostles, and the faith journeys undertaken by Joseph and Mary surrounding the nativity and infancy narratives of Jesus.
Some Advent traditions that can lay the foundations of faith in our children, include:
- Having an Advent calendar counting down to the Nativity of Jesus, with each day marked by the reading of a chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel has 24 chapters which allow us to “countdown” perfectly to Christmas Day.
- Create a tradition of giving and outreach to the poor and hungry during this time of Advent. When parents involve themselves and bring their children on charitable missions, their children learn what is lived by their parents’ examples.
- Remembering the Feast days and Memorials of the saints in December, such as that of St. Nicholas of Myra.
- Setting up a Nativity Scene, with a figure or set of figures being added in each week of Advent leading up to the final placing of the figure of the baby Jesus in the crib on Christmas Day.
- Making a birthday cake for Jesus and decorating it with motifs from Salvation history, and eating it on Christmas Day with family and friends.
- Having an Advent Wreath in the home and praying the prayers as the candles are lit each week.
- Setting up a Jesse Tree in the house.
These suggestions help to make the celebration of Advent and Christmas meaningful by providing sensorial reminders to keep watch for the second coming of Jesus; to recall the faithfulness and the goodness of God; and to be a visible sign to all who are witnessing us celebrate with great joy and deep conviction, the joyous birth of Jesus.
At the heart of these, is a truthful reflection about the depth of our faith, and the gentle reminder that in this liturgical season of waiting and anticipation, of our call to be faithful as God is faithful, and of our duty to emunah the Lord.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Hardon, J. A. (2000). Cult. Modern Catholic Dictionary. Eternal Life Publications.
Kreeft, P. (1988). Faith. Fundamentals of the Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 167 – 175.
Pope, H. (1909). Faith. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 4, 2021 from://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05752c.htm
Strong, J. (1890). Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Bible. Abingdon Press.