December 1, 2012
The season of Advent is all about the coming or “advent” of Christ. It traditionally starts the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas or the Sunday closest to Nov. 30 — that means tomorrow — and lasts until Dec. 24. The season typically involves a time of prayer, fasting and repentance in preparation for Christ’s birth.
Throughout history, Advent has evolved from a time of preparation for Epiphany which falls on Jan. 6 to celebrate the coming of the wise men, to looking forward to Christ’s second coming, to, finally, the more familiar preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas.
Modern Advent services include symbolic customs that are related to all three advents of Christ – His birth, His future coming at the end of times, and His presence among believers through the Holy Spirit.
One of those symbols is the Advent wreath. It has five candles which are lit each Sunday of the season. Each candle symbolizes different things. The candles are purple or blue, pink and white. About 50 years ago, the blue color was introduced to differentiate it from the Lenten season which also uses the color purple.
“It was decided that the tone of Advent is different than Lent, so the blue candle was introduced to use as an option instead of the purple candle,” explained the Rev. James Couser from St. Matthew Lutheran Church.
The first Sunday, a purple or blue candle is lit. This candle is called the prophecy candle and symbolizes hope. The second Sunday, another purple or blue candle is lit; this one is called the Bethlehem candle and symbolizes love. On the third Sunday, a pink candle is lit. This candle is called the shepherds’ candle and symbolizes joy. On the fourth Sunday, another purple or blue candle is lit. It is called the angels’ candle and symbolizes peace. On Christmas Eve, the white candle in the middle of the wreath is lit. This is called Christ’s candle and symbolizes purity.
Each week during the church service, there are Scripture passages that are read from both New and Old Testaments of the Bible that relate to Christ’s coming.
Churches have various ways that they start the Advent season. At Faith Christian Church, the Rev. Wade Pond said that on the first Advent Sunday, they will have a special meal and the entire congregation will be invited to help decorate the church.
At St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Couser said that his goal is to help to build anticipation for Christ’s birth, and that will start with a special service at 7 p.m. Sunday which will include the choir singing Advent hymns, as well as, a hymn-sing with the congregation. As part of building the anticipation, the decorations will be put up in stages rather than all at once.
The Eastern Orthodox church does things a little differently. Their season begins on Nov. 15.
“The 40 days before Christmas is a period of preparatory fasting,” said the Rev. Mark Hodges of St. Stephen’s the First Marty Orthodox Mission. “In our Advent fast, we avoid all meat, all alcohol and oil. We increase our prayers and our service to others.”
Church leadership also encourages church members to make Advent part of their daily routine.
“We distribute devotionals,” said Pond. “We also have a calendar with stickers we hand out to families with small children.”
Couser also has devotionals and calendars that he passes out in his church. Hodges, Pond and Couser all take advantage of social media and post daily Advent meditations on Facebook and through email.
The season is generally observed by denominations that go by a liturgical calendar, such as Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. However, many believers are coming to appreciate the Advent season, even if their denomination does not observe it, as a way to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.
Lora Szuch, mother of three children ages 2 to 8, is one of these. Although her church does not celebrate Advent, she has chosen to incorporate it into her children’s lives.
“I have a sweet memory of my mom having this card, and we would pull back a tab each day,” she said. “I wanted an intentional way to count down the days until Christmas while sharing the story of Christ’s birth.”
To do this, Szuch purchased an Advent box with 25 doors, and it has become a family tradition to sit down after dinner, each child taking turns to open one door each day to read a Scripture and take out a small trinket or chocolate.
No matter what church a person attends though, Advent is about slowing down and focusing on the coming of Christ.
“My vision for my church is that they see the signs of how God is with us in our world,” said Couser. “Everyone gets wired and worried about Christmas. I want everybody to slow down and see how God is with us.”