Advent Wreaths and Holy Family
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | November 30, 2017Hi friends, this Sunday we’re making Advent Wreaths together in the Mission Hall after the service. Today I want to write a bit about how Advent Wreaths came about and how they can help us become a more holy family.
Like most traditions, Advent Wreaths evolved over time. Christians and non-Christians have used wreaths for centuries both ritually and as decoration. Evergreen wreaths were particularly common in Scandinavian countries where evergreens were important symbols of life in long, dark winters. For Christians today, a circular wreath can symbolize God’s eternity: just as a circle has no beginning and end, neither does God, who is eternal. The evergreen fronds symbolize God’s continued presence with us even amidst darker, colder times like winter, though Texas winter usually isn’t that dire!
As far as I can tell, the first real Advent Wreath was made in 1839 by a Lutheran minister named Johann Hinrich Wichern. He worked at a children’s home in Hamburg, Germany, and each year near Christmas, the kids would ask him, “Is it Christmas yet?! Is it Christmas?!” As a way of both answering and channeling their excitement, Johann took the wooden wheel off a cart, turned it on its side, and drilled holes into it along the rim. He put four big white candles in for the four Sundays before Christmas and smaller red candles for the week days. The kids counted down each day until Christmas by lighting a new candle.
Roman Catholics adopted the tradition in the 1920s, and Anglicans (that’s us!) not long after. In many Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes, the color for Advent is purple and is seen as a time of penitential preparation, much like Lent. Thus, the candles became purple. The pink candle was for Gaudete Sunday and marked a rough mid-point for Advent. It’s pink to symbolize a kind of refreshment or break from penitence on our way to Christmas.
In many Anglican churches, including St. Elizabeth, the Advent color is blue. I appreciate this distinction because, while Advent is very much about preparation, it’s not as explicitly penitential as Lent. Advent is about expectation and preparing the way of the Lord. I think those little German kids in Hamburg back in the 1830s had it right: we should be excited about this! Our preparation should be active: decorate, cook food for each other, take particularly good care of the “least of these” who are members of God’s family.
That brings us to the candles. A Lutheran tradition many Episcopal Churches have picked up is that each candle of the first four candles represents different figures who helped prepare Jesus’ way. Here again, there’s variety, but the order we’ll use at St. Elizabeth this year is this: Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Prophets, the Holy Family Journeying to Bethlehem, and Angels visiting the Shepherds. We’ll talk more about each of these on Sunday.
The final candle in the center is for Christ himself. We’ll have some white candles you can take home as your household’s Christ candle this Sunday if you like, but you’re also welcome to use a candle of your own family’s choosing. This can be a powerful reminder that God became incarnate as a particular person: a child from Nazareth born in Bethlehem. Just as Jesus wasn’t some non-descript generic man, but a particular man who walked a certain way and maybe preferred fish to gyros, so too does Christ become incarnate in particular ways in your family and at our church, St. Elizabeth. We all have the same blue and pink candles in our wreaths because we all share the same patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets, Holy Family, shepherd and angels—but that story comes to fullness in Christ today in different ways in each of our lives.
This is why last week I made such a big deal about taking care of “the least of these who are members of [God’s] family,” and why I made a Facebook video about it. Just as God became a real, unique flesh and blood body in a specific time and place 2,000 years ago to feed and heal and comfort particular people, so too is God becoming incarnate today by taking on the body of Christ, which is the Church. It’s imperative that we be God’s unique heart, hands and feet in our specific times and places. We do this by paying extra attention to the particular needs of folks around us, especially folks who might otherwise get overlooked (whether in our social groups or by society at large). This is how we, as the Church, become a Holy Family: we are set apart for God’s ‘use,’ so to speak, in redeeming the world.
It doesn’t have to be something grand. Just as a regular friends and family are bound together mostly by small things—phone calls, cards, pecan pie and Love Actually—so too are we as God’s family bound together by small things: a cup of coffee, a ride to the doctor’s office, bread, wine, laying on of hands, words of comfort. This is how we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world, both then and now. This is how we become God’s Holy Family through whom Christ is born anew.
See you Sunday, everyone. A blessed Advent awaits.