Advent Candles & Wreath: What Do They Represent for Catholics?

advent wreath unlit

Erin Laviola/Church of the Resurrection An unlit Advent Wreath

The season of Advent is upon us and for practicing Catholics, these four weeks are primarily about preparation for the arrival of Jesus Christ. Advent 2019 began on Sunday, December 1, and ends on Christmas Eve.

The season is similar to Lent in that Catholics are instructed to focus on penance and forgiveness. But Advent differs in that it is meant to be more of a joyful season as Catholics get ready to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Messiah. The word Advent comes from a Latin word that means “arrival” or “coming.”

Those dual messages about penance and celebration are reflected in the purple and rose-colored candles that adorn the Advent wreath.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Purple Is the Color of Penance; During Advent, Catholics Are Instructed to Prepare For the Second Coming of Jesus Christ

Traditionally, three of the four candles on the Advent wreath are purple. This color is associated with penance in the Catholic Church. This is important during the leadup to Christmas because Advent is also a time to anticipate the second coming of Jesus.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains on its website, “The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas.”

The Church of the Resurrection in New Albany, Ohio, expanded on this message by posing the question to the congregation: “Jesus teaches his disciples to be vigilant so that they will be ready when the Son of Man comes in glory…What will you do this Advent to prepare your heart?”

2. The Pink Candle Symbolizes Joy & Is Lit During the Third Week of Advent

The pink or rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath serves as a reminder that amid the penance and the spiritual preparation, this is also a happy season!

Catholics are excitedly preparing for a celebration and the pink candle is meant as a visible symbol of this attitude. The priest also wears pink vestments during the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday.

In some traditions, the Advent wreath may also be adorned with all white candles. Red has also been used.

3. An Additional Candle Is Lit Each Sunday Leading Up to Christmas

The candles on the Advent wreath mark the passage of time leading to Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, only one of the purple candles is lit. On the second Sunday, two purple candles are lit.

The pink candle is lit on the third week as a joyous symbol that the season is about at its midpoint. All four candles are lit on the final Sunday before Christmas.

The USCCB explains, “The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead.”

In some churches, a white candle is placed in the middle of the Advent wreath. It is lit on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day as a symbol of the birth of Jesus.

4. Each Candle Symbolizes A Different Theme

advent wreath

GettyA soldier lights candles on an Advent wreath at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif on December 22, 2013.

Each candle on the Advent wreath represents various themes of the season. In some traditions, the first purple candle is also known as the Prophet’s Candle. It represents the centuries that the faithful waited in anticipation of the Messiah, as laid out in the Bible’s Old Testament.

The second purple candle is the Bethlehem Candle. The prophet Micah foretold several hundred years prior to Jesus’ birth that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem. Micah 5:2 in the King James version of the Bible reads, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

As referenced above, the third candle represents the joy of the season. It is called the Shepherd’s Candle.

The final purple candle is the Angel’s Candle. In the Bible story, angels proclaim the news of Jesus’ birth

5. The Advent Wreath Represents Everlasting Life

The Advent wreath is traditionally made out of evergreens. The circular shape is meant to symbolize everlasting life and God’s eternity. The Catholic Education Resource Center further explains that the types of evergreens carry additional symbolism.

“Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning which can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly.”

The organization also explains that the tradition of placing candles inside of wreaths dates back to pre-Christian Germanic tribes, who may have used the practice as a symbol of hope. Catholics are believed to have adopted this tradition during the Middle Ages.

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