Lighting the Advent Candles

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Lighting the Advent Candles

ROME, 6 DEC. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My question is whether there is a required order of which candle to be lit in the second week of Advent. Some folks in the liturgical committee said the candle on the right of the first lit candle (going counterclockwise); others said the candle on the left (going clockwise). I know the third week is the rose candle. — D.C., San Jose, California

A: There does not appear to be any prescribed order, either officially or even traditionally, except that the rose-colored candle is lit on the third (Gaudete) Sunday of Advent. The other three candles are customarily violet in color, although the Book of Blessings also allows for four violet or white candles. In Protestant use, four red candles are more common, with the occasional addition of a white candle in the center to represent Christ. In parts of some countries such as Italy and Brazil, four different colors are sometimes used which are lit in order from the darkest to the lightest hue so as to signify the progressive illumination of the world as Christ approaches.

While there appears to be no prescribed order for the first and second candle, it does appear to be a tradition that the order in which they are lit should be maintained. In other words, when the fourth Sunday arrives the candle from the first week is lit first, then the second week, the rose candle follows, and finally the last candle begins to shine. This order should be maintained on each occasion that the candles are lit over the four weeks.

There is quite a lot of discussion regarding the origin of the Advent wreath. Some place its beginnings in pre-Christian Scandinavian customs. Others claim the Middle Ages or 16th-century Lutheranism for its creation. One researcher even proposes that the modern version of the Advent wreath initiated in Hamburg, Germany, in 1839 as a pastoral initiative of Protestant pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881). It slowly spread to other churches, including the Catholic Church, and other countries, reaching the United States in the 1930s.

This latter version is not impossible. A custom, especially an annual one like this one with no official documents mandating its implementation, can appear ancient after about three generations. Apart from North America the use of the Advent wreath is a relative novelty and has spread to some Latin American countries, and even to Italy, only within the last 20 years or so.

Whatever the truth of the origin, the wreath is a symbol that most Christian denominations can share and appreciate.

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is quite beautiful. 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. There are different systems of considering the four weeks. For example, Week 1 evokes the patriarchs and the virtue of hope. Week 2 recalls the prophets and peace. Week 3 recalls John the Baptist and joy while Week 4 presents the figure of Mary and the virtue of love. If a fifth white candle is used, it naturally represents Christ, light of the world, and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Other systems of representing the weeks are also possible provided they match the liturgical character of the season.

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Follow-up: Lighting the Advent Candles [12-20-2011]

Pursuant to our remarks on the Advent wreath (see Dec. 6), a priest from Ontario commented:

"Since becoming a pastor I have very rarely allowed the lighting of the Advent wreath after the Mass has started. Does not the addition of this gesture, often accompanied by homemade prayers, etc., constitute an illicit addition to the sacred liturgy? Has the Holy See approved of this ritual? Why not respect the more spare introductory rites of Advent (no Gloria) and light the wreath before Mass begins?"

I would say that I am in broad agreement with our correspondent. 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.

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