Mention a wreath and our first thoughts are liable to be about funerals and Remembrance Days. In fact, the use of wreaths has an ancient and distinguished history. Centuries before the birth of Christ winners at the Greek Olympic Games had a wreath place upon their heads, likewise Roman emperors and victorious generals. In various ways they were people of eminence and achievement.
For several centuries Christians have had an Advent wreath hung over the front doors of their homes. In our churches a wreath is given a prominent place in the Sanctuary.
The Advent Wreath is loaded with sacred symbolism. Being circular – without beginning or end - it represents the eternity of God. The wreath was often made from a laurel branch. It being in leaf throughout the year pointed to the immortality of Jesus – truly human while remaining truly God.
The human family has had Jesus as its most outstanding member ever since that definitive moment in the history of mankind when Mary pronounced her FIAT at the Annunciation. The Son of God had become Jesus, the Son of Mary.
Year after year the Church has relived the centuries’ old yearning of God’s Chosen People. They were impatient that His promise to give them the Messiah would be fulfilled. His People struggled with a sense of emptiness, a hunger, a thirst, that only the coming of Jesus would satisfy.
In the prophesy of Isaiah we find this desolation being described in terms of ‘walking in darkness’ and welcoming the Messiah as ‘seeing a great light.’ “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,“ (Is. 9.1).
Very recently the force of this prophesy has come home to me!
Against a dark tropical sky shone the enormous dazzlingly brilliant moon. The media had predicted that on a certain night people all over the world would be able to have this experience. Here would be something not to be missed! As the night approached eager anticipation intensified. This was a moment of unique beauty, never, ever to be forgotten.
I could not help but think of the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life,“ (Jn. 8.12). Having Jesus as the light of my life is something to be treasured more than anything else imaginable.
Now to return to the Advent Wreaths in our churches. On the rim of each s circle of leaves are place four candles – representing the four Sundays of Advent. Three of the candles are purple – symbolic of a sinful people longing for, awaiting, the arrival (advent) of the Promised One who would come to save them from their sins. On the third Sunday of Advent a pink candle denotes a cheerful people confident that their Saviour is well on His way.
Advent begins with one candle being lighted; week after week another candle is lighted. As we draw ever closer to the birthday of the Light of the World the light radiating from the wreath becomes brighter and brighter. Through this we are meant to experience our increasing longing, our need, for Jesus. The crescendo of fulfilment is stated by a white candle being placed in the centre of the wreath… Christmas Day. “ For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” (Isaiah 9.6)
The Advent Wreath provides us with a spirituality of our journeying towards Jesus with ever-increasing urgency and joy. As one candle after another is lighted we are to become ever more aware of Jesus eagerly coming towards us.
This year, more than any previous year, I have a sense that we who still believe in the beautiful necessity of Jesus in our lives have a responsibility towards this world that is our home.
We are in duty bound to bear witness to the Good News that is Jesus Christ. We are to pray that the sublime graces of Christmastide may overflow into the whole world…fearful about the mess of itself it is creating…bewildered about where it is going.
I wish all of you a very blessed Advent Season!
Peter Clarke, O.P.