The Advent wreath has a rather mysterious origin. The tradition has taken many different forms over the years. The ring of lights originates in northern Europe, and likely began with the simple need to light the family dinner table during the long nights of winter. In Scandinavia, they had the tradition of arranging candles in a wheel, representing the changing of seasons from one year to the next. Separately, the tradition of wreath-making goes back to pre-Christian Greece and Rome, where circles of leaves and flowers were used to crown the victors in competitions and brides on their wedding day.
The modern Advent wreath dates back to 16th century Germany, and began in the Lutheran tradition. Using a circle of evergreen boughs, red and white candles represented the days of December leading to Christmas. As Catholics adopted and adapted the practice, the 24 candles were reduced down to four, one for each of the Sundays of Advent, with the colors switching to purple and pink to match the Catholic liturgical tradition.
The wreath of evergreen boughs represents the crown of Christ our coming King, still green and new with life. As the branches dry out, they hint at the crown of thorns that Christ will wear at the crucifixion. The four candles stand for the virtues of advent: hope, peace, joy (pink!), and love. The darker the nights get, the more light we need as we draw closer to Christmas, when Jesus, the light of the world, comes to us.
One last note: the advent wreath started as a tradition in family homes, and only later began to be found in churches. The advent wreath is a beautiful example of how the prayer of families, the domestic church, informs the way we pray together as the Catholic Church.
In the Roman Missal, there are lines of scripture assigned to every Mass called “entrance antiphons” which can be spoken or chanted at the beginning of Mass in place of music. The entrance antiphon for the third week of Advent is: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” In Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico gaudete.
The season of Advent is for repentance and reflection, so that we might prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of Christ. So in the midst of this penitential season, the call to rejoice stands out as a welcome change from the otherwise somber mood of Advent. Gaudete is a word in the imperative form – it is a command. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Gaudete Sunday marks the halfway point in Advent, and it commands us to prepare for Christ’s coming not just with penance, but with joy. (Laetare Sunday – the fourth Sunday of Lent – serves a similar purpose for the Lenten season.)
That is why Gaudete (and Laetare) Sunday gets their own special color: rose (which is just Latin for pink). The rose candle and rose vestments are visual reminders that even in the midst of winter, joy can still spring up anew.
The Liturgy of the Hours is an ancient form of prayer, prayed by priests, monks, nuns, and lay people all around the world. The Liturgy of the Hours is composed in a four week cycle, with prayers at multiple times of day. The most commonly prayed part of the Liturgy of the Hours are Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Over the course of the four weeks, all 150 psalms are read, and many other prayers and pieces of scripture are included. As you might imagine, praying the same words in the same order, week after week, year after year, may begin to grow repetitive and a maybe a little bland, which is why any changes stand out.
During the week that leads up to Christmas, the antiphons that are read during Evening Prayer change to 7 beautiful, miniature prayers – almost haiku-like in their form. Each begins with “O” and addresses Christ with a different title, and each concludes by imploring him to “Come” to the help of humanity. They are prayers of joy and hope for the coming of Christmas and have been transformed into the 7 verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the most ancient Advent hymn of the Church.
|December 17||O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!|
|December 18||O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!|
|December 19||O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!|
|December 20||O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!|
|December 21||O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.|
|December 22||O King of all nations and keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!|
|December 23||O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!|