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Moving Advent Wreaths to the Corner?

Unlit Candles in Advent wreath with Bible

(c) 2006 Casey Picker, Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license from flickr (ckpicker).

Did you know that the Anglican Church of Canada doesn’t approve of Advent wreaths?

I’m exaggerating slightly, but not by much. It’s a statement you’d find hard to believe, if you visit nearly any parish during Advent—and you’ll still see it in most places until the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January, and in other places until Candlemas on 2 February.

Moreover, if you were able to visit a number of different parishes in Advent this year, you’ll see no end of different ways of lighting the candles. You might hear references to hope, peace, joy, and love; to our forerunners in the faith; to the gifts of God’s Creation; or to any number of other themes. You might see elaborate liturgical moments: children asking adults why we light this candle, with an answer back, perhaps, or a family chosen to light the candles on a given week. You might see them lit silently and solemnly, or perhaps while a hymn that will be repeated each Sunday is sung.  There’s an incredible diversity of practice, just as there’s incredible variety in what the wreaths will look like—candles all blue, or three blue and one rose; slim tapers or thick pillars; lush greenery and ribbon or individual stands at the four corners of the room, making the congregation itself the wreath.

What you won’t find is anything to help you plan that moment for a Sunday Eucharist service if you glance at The Book of Alternative Services. Instead, you’ll need to turn to an inelegant red binder called Occasional Celebrations where you’ll read that the wreath was introduced to worship “only to provide a model for family use.” It goes on to say:

When the Advent wreath is used in church, the appropriate number of candles is lit before the liturgy begins. No special prayers, readings, or ceremonies normally accompany the lighting of the Advent candles. When the Service of Light is used at Evening Prayer during Advent, the wreath may be the symbolic focus of the service as described on p. 60 of The Book of Alternative Services.

Do you get the feeling that we’re being asked to downplay the whole wreath thing? Occasional Celebrations gives some helpful tips about how to make it part of our home lives—well, helpful for those who gather with others over a meal, anyway—but the repeated message is that Advent wreaths should be minimal: quiet, off to the side, and of little import.

Lit candles in a wooden Advent wreath stand

(c) 2007 Lean Penn. Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 license. (lapenn)

There’s a value to this simplicity, this focus on not adding on to the liturgy, and that value is about keeping Advent well.

We’re waiting, in this soon-to-start season. We’re waiting to celebrate Christmas, the good news of the Incarnation of how Jesus dwelt among us; we’re waiting for Jesus to come again in glory; we’re waiting for Jesus to come into our hearts and transform us in his likeness.  And the wreath dramatizes parts of this waiting well, but other parts poorly. As Occasional Celebrations argues,

The lighting of one, two, three, then four candles during the weeks of Advent is a reminder that we await Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. To wait for Jesus is to be ready to meet him in all the ways he comes. It is important that Christians observe Advent not only as a time of preparation for Christmas but also in realization that Christ’s coming kingdom stands in judgement over the injustices of our present world.

We hear that note of judgement in the readings that are not sweetness and light, that are not about what John Bell refers to as “babyfest” that we can slip into too easily, but are instead about the fullness of God’s light coming into the world.

It is this last idea that makes me… unsettled about the prominence of Advent wreaths in our Sunday liturgies. They’re a powerful symbol of waiting, of God’s light coming into the world—but they are most powerful when we let them function as that symbol instead of ascribing meanings to the individual candles. They are most effective when they are reminders of us, waiting in silence and stillness for God`s Word to burst into our midst.

What will accompany the wreath in your community this year? In your home? What’s the most effective way you’ve seen the Advent wreath used in your community? What’s important about the wreath for you?

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I’m a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.

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0 Responses to Moving Advent Wreaths to the Corner?

  1. For me, the Advent wreath has had a long tradition of controversy. I served one parish where we decided to NOT have a wreath present in the church based on it’s history as a home-based symbol of the waiting. Some loved that, some hated it. All had comments.

    In the parishes I serve now, the lighting of the candles will serve as a gathering, a children’s ministry, a thematic introduction. I allow the tradition of the parish to determine how we use the wreath; it’s become to the parishioners a meaningful part of the services and so it is (in my opinion) a valuable contribution. I am aware, however, of some Advent resources being less than theologically helpful with the Anglican tradition and lectionary.

    For my personal Advent journey, I follow a series of reflections (this year will be the free PWRDF resource! Shameless plug!). I also have a wreath full of candles (delighting my Celtic and Germanic spiritual roots), I engage in a litany of lighting candles as the season progresses.  I find that with the days becoming physically darker and darker,  this engages my spiritual challenge of focusing on and recognising the increasing light in the world. And oh my goodness it’s MUCH better than opening some little chocolate box starting on 01 December!


  2. I love the Anglican Communion. Pure and simple.

    I also love the Advent wreath.  I respect the thoughts, pro and con, but as one who had did not come in contact with true liturgical Sacramentals until my Roman Catholic days…I’ve always been grateful for how the signs seem to bring my mind into a deeper Contemplative state of prayer. Just my thoughts. 🙂  May God bless the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Anglican Communion as a whole. 🙂

  3. Dawn Leger

    I had no IDEA Advent wreaths were such an issue! I always thought they were awkward, but not really controversial. We’ve had more arguments about when to put up the Christmas tree.

    I’ve just finished my first draft of Sunday’s sermon and this made it in about lighting our Advent wreath:

    Lighting these candles is more than a simple, homey tradition. It is a commitment, and a promise. Christmas marks the incarnation of God into the world, and that, as Christians, we bear the light of Christ. If we truly believe that, then, every Sunday we light one of these candles, we are making a promise to bear the light of hope, the light of peace, the light of joy and the light of love into a broken world.
  4. Fr. Bengry

    I find the tree more controversial! People want to put it up November 1st! I do like the tradition and enjoy it in the Church and at home. The ceremonial need not be long or fussy, the wreath need not be large or imposing…

  5. I rather enjoy the way candles and wreath are used to mark the Sundays in Advent leading up to Christmas, including the short prayers and lighting ceremony that goes with them. Anything that includes participation, especially with children, has to be viewed as a good and welcoming thing. Seasonal things like this can help shake us out of the staid routine of services that sometimes afflict the church. As for the location within the church, it depends on the habits and practices, and convenience I suppose. Also having one in the home can help connect the home with the church.