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.
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?