Within the normal Gregorian calendar that the world follows, the Church has an additional liturgical calendar, according to which the new liturgical year began on December 1 with the first Advent Sunday. From now until December 25, when the world will celebrate Jesus’ birth, the time is designated as the Advent season.
While Christmas itself has several other symbols like the star, the Christmas tree, the little stable signifying where Jesus was born, Advent season too has its own special symbols.
As the most important of Advent symbols, an especially prepared wreath is placed in prominent places in churches, institutions and homes. It is not your normal wreath but is decorated with four candles of different colours. Its use during Advent is a longstanding Catholic tradition originally adopted in the Middle Ages to make spiritual preparation for Christmas.
The evergreens in the wreath mean continuous life. The circle signifying no beginning or end symbolises the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul and the everlasting life one eventually discovers in Christ. The pine cones that decorate the wreath symbolise life and resurrection. The wreath reminds us of both the immortality of our souls and God’s promise of everlasting life to us through Christ.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, and one candle is lit each Sunday. Three of the candles are purple because the colour violet is a liturgical colour that signifies a time of prayer, penance and sacrifice.
The first candle, purple in colour, symbolises hope, remembering also the prophecies made about the birth of Christ in the Old Testament. The second candle, also purple, represents faith and reminds us of Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem for the census ordered by emperor Augustus. The third candle is pink and symbolises joy. Similarly, the third Sunday of Advent is known “Gaudete” (joyful) Sunday and reminds us of the joy the world is expected to experience at Jesus’ birth. It is the midpoint of Advent. On the fourth week of Advent, the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance awaiting the birth of the Saviour. This candle symbolises peace, reminding of the message to the angels: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward all people.” Some people have now started to also add an extra white candle placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Eve.
The significance of the Advent season is to help people prepare their hearts and minds spiritually for the unique event of God taking on an incarnation in the form of the person of Jesus. The faithful are helped in doing this by the appropriate set of prayers and hymns. They are also encouraged to meditate on the selected Bible passages that speak of the Messiah’s advent in the world.