More families and churches turning to Advent wreaths

They want to reinforce religious meaning of Christmas season

November 28, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Concerned that the sacred in the Christmas season is being lost amid the commercial, more churches and families are turning to a simple symbol, the Advent wreath, to keep Christ at the center of their holiday.

As the monthlong Advent season begins today, Christian congregations will light the first of four candles and recite prayers as they anticipate the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Lighting an Advent wreath is a tradition many families are discovering as a way of reinforcing the religious meaning of the season as Christmas approaches. And some evangelical and Pentecostal churches that have traditionally shunned such symbols are taking up the practice.

"Historically the practice of liturgical rites and the like have just not been a part of our experience and worship," said the Rev. Don Kimball, a pastor at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville, which started lighting an Advent wreath last year. Although some evangelical churches de-emphasize Christmas season celebrations to avoid secularizing Christmas, Trinity Assembly of God members saw the commemoration of Advent as an opportunity.

"One of the things that we as Pentecostals have not done very well is we've not historically done a very good job of preparing people for Christmas," Kimball said.

"Advent is a way of extending the holiday to the whole month."

The Advent wreath is rooted in a pagan Northern European custom of lighting candles to ward off the darkness during the winter solstice. It was adopted by German Lutherans in the 16th century, who gave it Christian symbolism.

The typical Advent wreath has four candles surrounded by an evergreen wreath. Three of the candles are purple, symbolizing penitence, and one is pink or rose-colored, to be lighted on the third Sunday of Advent. Some churches use blue candles instead of purple to symbolize hope.

Each candle has a meaning and message.

"The first is the candle of hope, which is tied to the idea of the Old Testament prophets and hope of a coming Messiah," said the Rev. Ron Scates, senior pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Towson, which has been lighting the Advent wreath for a decade.

"The second is the candle of joy, tied to the idea of when Christ came, he brought light to the world, the joy of knowing God in a personal way. The third is the candle of love, which is pink, representing the unconditional love of God for us displayed in Christ. And the fourth is the candle of peace -- Christ as the prince of peace. The only hope for peace is with God," Scates said.

As James and Ann Marie Simanski began having children, they decided that lighting an Advent wreath would reinforce the religious nature of the season.

Each year, the family makes the wreath at Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Roman Catholic Church in Timonium, and each night during Advent the Simanskis gather their children, Chelsea, 9; Julia, 7; and Garrett, 3, to light the candles in their home.

"We try to focus on the real meaning of Christmas rather than just on gift-giving," Ann Marie Simanski said. "I wanted to instill in my children's life a real sense of God and Jesus. I really will work with this, and I will keep at it. This will become a tradition."

Not only does the Advent wreath reinforce a religious message, but it also creates a contemplative mood.

"It's sort of a quiet time," Simanski said. That is, when there isn't an argument over who gets to light or blow out the candles.

"It's something that doesn't always go smoothly," she says, "but it's something we will continue to do.

"They will learn to behave as they get older."

At Central Presbyterian, each service during Advent will begin with a family lighting the wreath. "In a secular culture where Christmas has come to mean everything but the birthday of Christ, our kids are bombarded on every side, advertisements on TV and everywhere you go," Scates said. "It's a great way for Christian families to undergird the real meaning of Christmas in their children's lives."

As another candle is lighted each week, the Advent wreath also helps to build a sense of anticipation for the Christmas celebration.

"It is a visual way of heightening the sense of expectation in the Advent season," said the Rev. Emora T. Brannan, senior pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in North Baltimore.

"Because you light an additional candle each Sunday for four Sundays, as you watch the amount of light increase in the wreath, this week one, then next week two, and so on, it builds expectation," Brannan said. "We think of Christ as the light of the world coming, and each week that light grows."

By praying daily around the Advent wreath, families can prepare spiritually for Christmas. "Because it's a kind of restrained visual, it focuses people's attention on the fact that we need to prepare as we get closer to the Christmas season," Brannan said. "It's a message of: `Prepare ye the way for the coming of the Lord.' "

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