The culture in which we live has generally lost the meaning behind the symbols of Advent and have replaced the Advent story with its own brand of Hallmark comic strips.
Our consumeristic world even has its own liturgical approach to the Christmas season, complete with its own progressing colors. It begins with Black Friday, which quickly gives way to the red rage of shopping aggravation, followed shortly by the green envy of that last hot new item, and eventually leading to the depressing Blue Christmas of Elvis Presley fame. This holiday season is a roller coaster ride that launches with energy and excitement only to give way to aggravation, frustration, stress, and financial panic. It is little wonder that suicide rates skyrocket around the Christmas season.
In the midst of this, something whispers to us from the shopping carts with the gentle hush of softly falling snow. For Christians, this is not “the holiday season.” For us, this is Advent, the anticipation and preparation of our coming King. It is a symbol not of frustration, but of enduring hope. The symbols of Advent are not ribbons and receipts, they are emblems of a historical liturgy that calms our spirits and remind us of a powerful truth: Christ has come, and Christ is coming again.
Sometimes, we need to be reminded of this. Throughout the centuries, Christians have cultivated powerful symbols of Advent that do this very thing. They hang on our doors, fill our homes, and decorate our churches. They sculpt our winter world with the promise of life abundant, and color our Christmas with the subtle hues of hope. They are icons, and through these the glorious Advent Story needs to be reclaimed.
Five Symbols Of Advent
The Liturgical Colors
Those of you who attend the more liturgical churches have likely noticed the change in adornments that decorate your place of worship. For much of the Christian year, the colors of “ordinary time” cover the sanctuary with a deep green to represent our continuing growth as Christians. The Sunday prior to Advent, however, these colors shift to a sparkling white in celebration of Christ the King Sunday. Advent then begins the process of preparing for the King to come.
For much of this season, the liturgy is purple. Purple constitutes royalty, which is fitting for the King born to us in a manger. Purple also communicates penitence as well as preparation. The two go hand in hand: we prepare for our coming King by examining our hearts and repenting of our own rebellion. For some, blue will replace purple as the primary symbol of advent. Blue represents hope, and that is precisely what Advent promises us. This color remains until Christmas Eve, where the birth of our Lord is celebrated. On this night, blue and purple give way to white, a symbol of purity and joy.
In addition to the liturgical colors, the evergreen decor hangs on furnishings woven from various sources. These sources are, themselves, symbols of Advent and the message it conveys. Cedar, for example, represents royalty. Fir and pine are icons of everlasting life. Holly is often used to reflect the atoning death of Christ, married to ivy which represents His resurrection. The combination of these join with the everlasting greenery (ever-green) to remind us of the promise of life born to us in Bethlehem.
The Advent Wreath
Among the greens is a very special symbol of Advent. The wreath, often hung on our doors or our walls, is woven in a circle to represent God’s never-ending love. The greenery that makes up the wreath communicates eternal life, while the types of greens used continue to add to the symbolism. For example, a wreath interwoven with holly and ivy conveys the boundless love of God extending to us eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ.
In addition to this, a second form of wreath is often combined with other symbols of Advent. While the first wreath is hung, this wreath is laid flat and filled with five different candles. These candles are then lit over the course of the season to mark the progression of the Advent story.
As mentioned above, these candles are often placed within a wreath as a progressive journey through the Advent story. Sometimes, they are placed on a stand instead, or within a candelabra. This loses some of the power of the symbol, but still serves to ably communicate the story of Advent.
There are five candles, made up of three colors, and lit in a very particular order. On the first Sunday of Advent, a purple candle is lit in remembrance of the prophets and as a symbol of hope. The coming Messiah had been looked toward with great anticipation, foretold by the ancient prophets. Advent is a fulfillment of that ancient hope.
The second candle is a purple candle as well, representing Bethlehem and becoming a symbol of love. It was here, in Bethlehem, where the love of God was played out in a child resting in a manger, the very source of our hope as Christians.
The third candle is most typically pink or rose, representing the shepherds and depicting joy. It was to the shepherds that the heavenly chorus lit up the sky in resplendent celebration as they brought forth “tidings of great joy” that the savior of the world was born.
The fourth candle is purple again, representing the angels and becoming a symbol of peace. It was, after all, part of the angelic pronouncement that the birth of our Lord would eventually come to herald a reign of God promising peace on earth and good will to those upon whom His favor rests.
Finally, the fifth candle: the Christ candle. This candle is white, glorious in its purity and splendor, and the pinnacle of the celebration of the Advent story. This is lit on Christmas Eve in celebration of the Messiah. It is in Him that we find the fulfillment of these emblems promising hope, love, joy, and peace.
The Chrismon Tree
The final member of our symbols of Advent is the tree itself. As with all evergreens, the tree depicts eternal life. This tree, however, is to be decorated with various Christian symbols that have found their home among the Children of God over the course of centuries. Some symbols might include the star (representing the guidance of the Magi), a butterfly (long held as a symbol of resurrection, transformation, and eternal life), a bow (representing the gift of God’s son), and of course the cross and the emblem of the trinity. The Chrismon tree reminds us that our hope is found in Christ, and we are part of a legacy of Christians that have long found their strength in Him.
The secular world sees their own symbols and liturgical colors in the coupons and sales that mar the landscape of our commercialized world. For us, we find our anchor in the symbols of Advent that remind us what this season truly promises: a blue hope for our world, a purple peace for our spirit, and a rose-colored joy for our lives, discovered in the glorious white of the Emmanuel.
Let us remember what these symbols of Advent teach us, and may all our Christmases be white.