The Tradition of Candles

Candles are central to the tradition of Advent. The wreath on which candles are kept reminds us of God Himself, His eternity and endless mercy, which has no beginning or end. And the Candles symbolize the light of God coming into the world through the birth of His son. The circular evergreen wreath is decorated with five candles, four around the wreath and one in the center. The four outer candles represent the period of waiting during the four Sundays of Advent, which themselves symbolize the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.

The colors of the candles vary with different traditions, but there are usually three purple or blue candles, corresponding to the sanctuary colors of Advent, and one pink or rose candle. One of the purple candles is lighted the first Sunday of Advent, a Scripture is read, a short devotional or reading is given, and a prayer offered. On subsequent Sundays, previous candles are relighted with an additional one lighted. The pink candle is lighted on the third Sunday of Advent.

The light of the candles itself becomes an important symbol of the season. The light reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world that comes into the darkness of our lives to bring newness, life, and hope. It also reminds us that we are called to be a light to the world as we reflect the light of God's grace to others (Isa 42:6). The progression in the lighting of the candles symbolizes the various aspects of our waiting experience. As the candles are lighted over the four week period, it also symbolizes the darkness of fear and hopelessness receding and the shadows of sin falling away as more and more light is shed into the world. The flame of each new candle reminds the worshippers that something is happening, and that more is yet to come. Finally, the light that has come into the world is plainly visible as the Christ candle is lighted at Christmas, and worshippers rejoice over the fact that the promise of long ago has been realized.

The first candle is traditionally the candle of Expectation or Hope (or in some traditions, Prophecy). This draws attention to the anticipation of the coming of a Messiah that weaves its way like a golden thread through Old Testament history. As Godís people were abused by power hungry kings, led astray by self-centered prophets, and lulled into apathy by half-hearted religious leaders, there arose a longing among some for God to raise up a new king who could show them how to be Godís people. They yearned for a return of Godís dynamic presence in their midst.

And so, God revealed to some of the prophets that indeed He would not leave His people without a true Shepherd. While they expected a new earthly king, their expectations fell far short of Godís revelation of Himself in Christ. And yet, the world is not yet fully redeemed.  So, we again with expectation, with hope, await Godís new work in history, the second Advent, in which He will again reveal Himself to the world. And we understand in a profound sense that the best, the highest of our expectations will fall far short of what our Lordís Second Advent will reveal!

The remaining three candles of Advent may be associated with different aspects of the Advent story in different churches, or even in different years. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence for the remaining three Sundays might be Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Or Peace, Joy, Love. Or John the Baptist, the Magi, Mary. Or the Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment. Whatever sequence is used, the Scripture readings, prayers, lighting of the candles, the participation of worshipers in the service, all are geared to telling the story of redemption through Godís grace in the Incarnation.

The third candle for the Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally Pink or Rose, and symbolizes Joy at the Advent of the Christ. Sometimes the colors of the sanctuary and vestments are also changed to Rose for this Sunday. Whatever sequence is adopted for these Sundays, the theme of Joy can still be the focus. For example, when using the third Sunday to commemorate the visit of the Magi the focus can be on the Joy of worshipping the new found King. Or the Shepherds as the symbol for the third Sunday brings to mind the joy of the proclamation made to them in the fields, and the adoration expressed as they knelt before the Child at the manager.

The center candle is white and is called the Christ Candle.  It is traditionally lighted on Christmas Eve or Day. However, since many Protestant churches do not have services on those days, many light it on the Sunday preceding Christmas, with all five candles continuing to be lighted in services through Epiphany (Jan 6). The central location of the Christ Candle reminds us that the incarnation is the heart of the season, giving light to the world.

Advent


 
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