Thursday, December 10, 2020
Lighting the Advent Candles
SCRIPTURE: But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. John 3:21NRSV
I did not encounter a wreath of Advent candles until I came home on Christmas break one year while in college and found them used in a worship service at my home church. A new minister who arrived that June had introduced the practice. There was no song to go with the candle lighting. The song we now sing, “Light the Advent Candle” was not written until several years later, in 1975.
Having not grown up with an Advent Wreath, I have always found the practice interesting and did some research into its origin. The modern Advent Wreath was invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, Germany. Wichern ran a mission school. The children at the school were eager for Christmas to arrive and asked him almost every day when the holiday would arrive. In 1839, Wichern hoped to avoid the daily questions with a visual aid. He took an old wagon wheel and placed 20 small red candles and 4 large white candles on the wheel, then decorated it with greens. As Advent began, a red candle was lit each day, with a big white candle lighting services on Sunday. No more questions!
The Advent Wreath idea spread to other German Lutheran churches and was reduced to the four Sunday candles for simplicity. The Roman Catholics in Germany borrowed the idea in the 1920’s and it spread to Lutheran churches in the United States in the 1930’s. By 1964, an Advent Wreath appeared on a children’s television program and soon it was adopted by most other Protestant denominations. In recent years, Orthodox churches have begun to use a six candle wreath, with green, blue, gold, white, purple and red colors since their Advent runs two weeks longer.
Wreaths are circular to represent God’s infinite love, and the candles represent the Light of God coming into the world through Jesus Christ. Candle colors can vary – many use three purple and one pink candle, others (particularly in Anglican churches) have four blue candles, while British churches tend to use red candles. Some wreaths (like St. John’s) have a fifth candle which is white and called the Christ candle, lit at Christmas. St. John’s candles symbolize hope, peace, joy, and love. Some other churches have the candles symbolize the prophecy of the Messiah, the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the angels’proclamation of peace. In the United Kingdom, the symbolism is linked to the lectionary readings which includes John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
Prayer: Lord, may the Advent Wreath be particularly meaningful for us at St. John’s this year, as the Light of Your Son is so needed in our troubled world. Bless all who light its candles, whatever their colors or symbolism, as we all commemorate the arrival of our Savior. Amen.