Advent Wreaths and Penitential Rites

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Advent Wreaths and Penitential Rites

ROME, 27 NOV. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am hesitant to layer the introductory rites of the Mass during Advent with more words; the Church omits the Gloria during Advent to remind us of the season's simplicity and even its penitential character. However, the Advent wreath has become an important symbol in many parishes. For the lighting of the candles to be featured at one weekend Mass but not the others would make little sense to the people, since they don't attend more than one weekend Mass. I have resolved the situation by having an acolyte or server light the candles during the Penitential Act. We use the third form, and for the first three Sundays we use the first option: "You came to gather the nations …." On the last Sunday, and on Christmas, we use the second option, "Lord Jesus, you are mighty God and Prince of peace …." Thus, something is being sung or said, and the lighting is not simply perfunctory. On weekdays, the candles are lighted before Mass. Any comment? — T.D., Western Australia

A: These comments were originally spurred by a follow-up article from Dec. 20, 2011, in which I wrote: "From a liturgical point of view, only the blessing of the wreath on the first Sunday of Advent is included among those that may be used at Mass. This rite has received the approval of the Holy See for those countries that requested its inclusion in their translation and adaptation of the Book of Blessings. It is not found in the original Latin benedictional.

"The multitude of other rites and ceremonies that have grown up around the lighting of the wreath are mostly geared to family celebrations. These may be profitably used in church but outside of Mass. For example, it is possible to organize a prayer service before the Saturday evening Mass.

"If, however, there is no ceremony outside of Mass to light the candles on Sundays 2, 3 and 4 of Advent, I think that it is legitimate for the priest to do so at the very beginning of the first Mass of the corresponding Sunday (or Saturday evening) with no added rituals or texts. For example, after genuflecting toward the tabernacle or bowing toward the altar, the celebrant could simply light a taper from an earlier candle and, saying nothing, use this to light the next candle. He could then go to kiss the altar and continue Mass as normal. The sacristan would light the wreath candles before the celebration of later Masses."

While I would agree with our reader that the role of the Advent wreath has become more important, it is still only one non-liturgical symbol and its importance should not be exaggerated. The Advent liturgy is itself sufficient to provide all the necessary teaching material so as to prepare for Christmas.

With respect to my earlier reply I see no great difficulty in lighting the candle at the beginning of each Sunday Mass in the simple manner I described.

I would balk, however, at mixing it with the Penitential Act in the manner described by our reader. Four reasons come to mind.

First, general liturgical principles do not allow anyone, on his own authority, to add or remove anything from the sacred rites.

Second, this proposal removes the necessary freedom of the celebrant to use any other form of the penitential rite and thus subjects the liturgy to the needs of a devotional practice.

Third, I doubt that combining the lighting of the candle with the penitential rite sends the right message. The admission of our sinfulness is an important part of every Mass, as we prepare our souls to live the sacred mysteries. Combining it with the lighting of the candle quite likely would distract from this primary meaning toward various other messages that are best reserved for other moments.

Finally the Advent wreath itself has various shades of meaning and is not essentially penitential in character. The circle of the wreath, with no beginning or end and made with evergreens, represents eternity and the everlasting life found in Christ. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent whose progressive lighting expresses the expectation and hope surrounding the coming of the Messiah.

These other nuances could be lost by associating it too closely to the penitential rite.

I am certain of our reader's good faith and his desire to obtain the best pastoral benefit from this devotional act. However, I remain unconvinced that this proposal is a viable pastoral action and in full conformity with liturgical norms.

* * *

Follow-up: Advent Wreaths and Penitential Rites [12-11-2012]

Related to the Nov. 27 question on the Advent wreath and the penitential act, a Louisiana reader had asked: "Except when Form C is used, is the Kyrie considered part of the Penitential Act, or is it its own distinct part of the liturgy? On occasions when the Penitential Act is to be omitted, is the Kyrie also omitted?"

Historically, and still today in the extraordinary form, the Kyrie is not considered, properly speaking, part of the penitential rites. In the extraordinary form the Confiteor is said at the foot of the altar while the Kyrie is said or sung after reciting the entrance antiphon and, in solemn celebrations, after incensing the altar.

The petition of mercy enshrined in the Kyrie embraced all forms of divine benevolence and is not limited to the forgiveness of sins.

In the ordinary form the Kyrie has been more closely associated with the Penitential Act without strictly speaking forming part of it. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 52, says:

"After the Act of Penitence, the Kyrie is always begun, unless it has already been included as part of the Act of Penitence. Since it is a chant by which the faithful acclaim the Lord and implore his mercy, it is ordinarily done by all, that is, by the people and with the choir or cantor having a part in it. As a rule, each acclamation is sung or said twice, though it may be repeated several times, by reason of the character of the various languages, as well as of the artistry of the music or of other circumstances. When the Kyrie is sung as a part of the Act of Penitence, a trope may precede each acclamation."

As our reader mentioned, the Kyrie is omitted if it has already been incorporated as part of the Penitential Act. The question regards its omission when the penitential rite itself is omitted, when certain liturgical celebrations take place at the beginning of Mass.

Among the liturgical rites which foresee the omission of the penitential rite are: the consecration or blessing of a church, the blessing of a new presidential chair, or when lauds or vespers are joined to Mass.

It is not always clear whether omitting the penitential rite necessarily includes leaving aside the Kyrie.

In some rites the rubric simply says that, after omitting the penitential rite, the Mass continues as usual. In other rites it is clearly omitted, such as when the Mass begins with the rite of blessing and sprinkling of water. When this rite is concluded, the rubric indicates that the celebration pass to the singing the Gloria or to the collect as the case may be.

My opinion would be that, although it is not explicit in every case, the Kyrie would normally be omitted whenever the rubrics for a blessing indicate the omission of the penitential rite.

The case is different for times when the Liturgy of the Hours is joined with Mass. No. 94 of the Introduction to the Divine Office says: "The psalmody of morning prayer follows as usual, up to, but excluding, the reading. After the psalmody the penitential rite is omitted and, as circumstances suggest, the Kyrie; the Gloria then follows, if required by the rubrics, and the celebrant says the opening prayer of the Mass. The liturgy of the word follows as usual." This norm therefore allows both possibilities, with no particular preference being shown by the rubrics.

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