Today is the first Sunday of the Advent season leading up to the celebration of Christmas. The following is a brief description of Advent in an article titled, “Advent Wreath & Candles: Understanding the Meaning, History & Tradition,” by Laurie Richie, author of The Advent Storybook and a registered nurse:
Advent is a time of expectation and hope. “Advent” means “arrival” or “coming,” and it prompts us to pause each day in December and remember why Jesus came at Christmas. Traditions vary by country, but common ways of commemorating Jesus’ birth are through Advent calendars, wreaths, and candles. Ideally, any Advent tradition should involve families in a fun activity each day of December, helping them remember why we celebrate Christmas….
Advent candles shine brightly in the midst of darkness, reminding us that Jesus came as Light into our dark world. The candles are often set in a circular Advent wreath. In Scandinavia, Lutheran churches light a candle each day of December; by Christmas, they have twenty-four candles burning. Another Advent candle option is a single candle with twenty-four marks on the side–the candle is lit each day and allowed to melt down to the next day’s mark.
The most common Advent candle tradition, however, involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
- The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival.
- The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David.
- The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too. In liturgy, the color rose signifies joy.
- The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.
- The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day. (Quote source here.)
In another article published in 2017 titled, “First Sunday of Advent: He is Coming!” by Michael Simone, S.J., Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, he describes this first Sunday of Advent as follows:
Jesus is on a rescue mission. That is the major theme of Mark’s entire Gospel, which we will be reading on most Sundays in the new liturgical year that begins on this First Sunday of Advent. The end of the age was near, and God sent the Son to save Israel from the coming calamity. Mark has none of Matthew’s ruminative, “what-does-it-all-mean” discourses. Instead, Mark packs his narrative with action. Blind beggars, sick children, grieving parents and demon-haunted madmen take center stage. As Jesus delivered each one, he progressively revealed himself to be the savior of anyone who believed in his power.
This message suited Mark’s times. He wrote around the year A.D. 70, in a period of chaos in the Roman world. Assassins had killed the emperor Nero two years before. Three feckless emperors followed in quick succession. Subject peoples everywhere rose up against Rome. Each insurrection failed. In Judea, the Roman general Vespasian fought the Jews ferociously before hurrying back to Rome to be acclaimed emperor. He left his son, Titus, to clean up the last of the resistance. On Aug. 30, A.D. 70, Titus broke through the walls of Jerusalem, sacked the city and destroyed the temple, which has never been rebuilt. (The arch of Titus in Rome commemorates this destruction. The Jewish people felt the loss so keenly that until the late 20th century, rabbinic law forbade any Jew from walking through the arch under penalty of permanent excommunication.)
Christians living in these times felt an acute need for rescue. They knew Jesus had come and they believed God was at work to save them, but they did not know what form their rescue would take. To this community, Mark relays Jesus’ message: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” Throughout his Gospel, Mark shows how hard it was for people to recognize Jesus’ true nature, even when they witnessed the great deeds he performed. Jesus ordered his disciples to remain vigilant for his second coming, lest they too miss his presence. Forty-odd years later, Mark passed this command on to his community, who must have felt, as the world they knew crumbled around them, that they were living in the time Christ foretold.
The church teaches that, although Mark’s historical expectations may have proved incorrect, the message he provides for our salvation is forever true. In today’s Gospel passage, that message is clear: “Watch! May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping!” We wait, like Mark’s community, for the coming of the Son of Man. We know to be alert for Christ at the end of our natural lives. As we begin another Advent, it is also important to remember that Christ appears suddenly in our life every day. Like the characters of Mark’s Gospel, we can easily miss his arrival. If Mark were writing today, he would perhaps use other symbols for that spirit of distraction. “Be watchful! Be alert! May he not find you obsessing over trivia, lusting after images on the internet, preoccupied with your phone or indulging in hate, fear or greed.” May we use these weeks before Christmas to put away our distractions and put our faith in Christ anew. (Quote source here.)
“Jesus is on a rescue mission.” And He is, of course! We have so many distractions in our society today that it is too easy to miss what Jesus is doing. We are way too easily distracted by (everything), or obsessed over (trivia), or lusting after (what we want but don’t have), or preoccupied with (smartphones, money, and lots of other things), and indulging in things like hate, fear or greed, and often all at the same time. And just where is Jesus going to fit in with all of that? In fact, does He fit in at all?
Creighton University’s Online Ministry has provided a few guidelines for us to consider during this first week of Advent:
As we begin Advent we light one candle in the midst of all the darkness in our lives and in the world. It symbolizes our longing, our desire, our hope. Three “advents” or “comings” shape our desire. We want to be renewed in a sense that Jesus came to save us from our sin and death. We want to experience his coming to us now, in our everyday lives, to help us live our lives with meaning and purpose. And we want to prepare for his coming to meet us at the end of our lives on this earth.
So, we begin with our longing, our desire and our hope.
When we wake up, each day this week, we could light that candle, just by taking a few moments to focus. We could pause for a minute at the side of our bed, or while putting on our slippers or our robe, and light an inner candle. Who among us doesn’t have time to pause for a moment? We could each find our own way to pray something like this:
“Lord, the light I choose to let into my life today is based on my trust in you. It is a weak flame, but I so much desire that it dispel a bit more darkness today. Today, I just want to taste the longing I have for you as I go to the meeting this morning, carry out the responsibilities of my work, face the frustration of some difficult relationships. Let this candle be my reminder today of my hope in your coming.”
Each morning this week, that momentary prayer might get more specific, as it prepares us for the day we will face. And as we head to work, walk to a meeting, rush through lunch, take care of errands, meet with people, pick up the phone to return some calls, answer e-mail, return home to prepare a meal, listen to the ups and downs of our loved ones’ day, we can take brief moments to relate our desire for the three comings of the Lord to our life.
If our family has an Advent wreath, or even if it doesn’t, we could pray together before our evening meal. As we light the first candle on the wreath, or as we simply pause to pray together our normal grace. Then, as we begin to eat, we can invite each other, including the children, to say something about what it means today to light this first candle.
Perhaps we could ask a different question each night, or ask about examples from the day. How am I getting in touch with the longing within me? How did I prepare today? What does it mean to prepare to celebrate his coming 2,000 years ago? How can we prepare to experience his coming into our lives this year? What does it mean for us now, with our world involved in so much conflict? How are we being invited to trust more deeply? How much more do we long for his coming to us, in the midst of the darkness in our world? In what ways can we renew our lives so we might be prepared to greet him when he comes again? Our evening meal could be transformed this week, if we could shape some kind of conversation together that lights a candle of anticipation in our lives. Don’t worry if everyone isn’t “good at” this kind of conversation at first. We can model it, based on our momentary pauses throughout each day, in which we are discovering deeper and deeper desires, in the midst of our everyday lives.
And every night this week, we can pause briefly, perhaps as we sit for a minute at the edge of the bed. We can be aware of how that one, small candle’s worth of desire brought light into this day. And we can give thanks. Going to bed each night this week with some gratitude is part of the preparation for growing anticipation and desire.
Come, Lord Jesus! Come and visit your people. We await your coming. Come, O Lord. (Quote source here.)
As we celebrate this Advent season, let us remember what Jesus said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me . . .
Will never walk in darkness . . .
But will have . . .
The light of life . . . .
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