Symbols explain essence of Advent season

Friday, December 12, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST
Ab Advent wreath sits on the altar at St. Thomas More Newman Center.

What is Advent?
Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas celebrated in many Christian faith traditions. Signaling the beginning of the church year in most Western church traditions, as well as the beginning of the Christmas season, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas — this year, it beganNov. 30 — and ends on Christmas Eve. A number of churches in Columbia, including those in the Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions, celebrate Advent with special services, prayers, hymns, decorations and other activities during the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

Among Christians, Advent is marked by a spirit of preparation for and anticipation of the birth of Jesus. The Rev. Brian Thieme, Trinity Lutheran Church's associate pastor, says as part of the preparation, Advent includes a time of penitence and turning toward God.


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The Rev. Thomas Saucier agrees. “There is a sense of fasting and more prayer to accept more of Jesus’ life and teaching into our own lives,” said Saucier, St. Thomas More Newman Center's pastor.

Advent is celebrated with many traditions and symbols.

Purple is traditionally the primary color of Advent in church sanctuaries, symbolizing penitence, though Saucier adds the color also has a connection to royalty. Purple has been replaced by royal blue in many Protestant churches, partly, Saucier notes, to distinguish Advent from the solemn pre-Easter season of Lent, which also uses purple.

The use of blue carries its own special connotations. “Blue is seen as a symbol of hope and anticipation,” Thieme says.

In the Catholic tradition, pink is also used on the third Sunday of both Advent and Lent, representing a growing sense of joy and preparation for Christmas and Easter. “In one sense, because they are penitential seasons,” Saucier says, “the Church feels after three weeks, you need something to be happy about, so let’s have a little more uplifted celebration.” The third Sunday of Advent — known in the Catholic tradition as Gaudete Sunday, which means “to praise or celebrate” — is this weekend.

Advent wreath
The Advent wreath, a circular wreath with four candles, is present in many churches and homes during Advent and is symbolic of several aspects of the Christmas season and Advent. Three purple or blue candles (representing penitence) and one pink candle (representing joy) are used, one lit for each Sunday of Advent. According to an article about Advent at CRI/Voice Institute, many wreaths also feature a fifth white candle in the center called the Christ Candle, which is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The circular shape of the wreath symbolizes the eternal nature of God, while its greenery — typically evergreen or fir but sometimes holly or ivy, as is the Newman Center’s wreath — symbolizes the hope Christians have in God. Saucier says the wreath reminds Christians of the preparation inherent in the Advent season: “The lights remind us of that preparation that we need to do, the transformation that goes on in our own life, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus.”

Advent calendar
Advent calendars are popular in many Christian homes, especially as a way of involving children in the season. They most often take the form of a card or poster with many tiny windows or doors, one for each day of Advent, that can be opened to reveal a picture, symbol, poem or Scripture associated with the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. At Trinity Lutheran Church, Advent calendars are sometimes used with children.

“The nice thing about an Advent calendar is that it gives them that visual countdown or movement to our looking forward to Christ come onto Earth,” Thieme says. “That’s what Christmas usually does, but we are also celebrating the second time he will come to earth.”

Hanging of the greens
Many churches hold a special service known as the “hanging of the greens,” in which they decorate the church with evergreen wreaths, boughs or trees to symbolize new and everlasting life. This is a special Christmas tradition in many churches. “There are just so many people who have said this is the beginning of Christmas for them,” says the Rev. Jim Bryan, a pastor at Missouri United Methodist Church, of his church’s Hanging of the Greens service on Nov. 30. “It comes every year at precisely the right moment.”

A Christian take on Christmas ornaments, chrismons are handmade Christian symbols placed on evergreen trees, such as the chrismon trees in Missouri United Methodist Church’s sanctuary. The word chrismon, according to the legend shared at that church’s Hanging of the Greens service, comes from a combination of two words, “Christian” and “monogram.”

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