Advent is the beginning of the church year for most churches in the Western tradition. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve (December 24). If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent.
The word Advent means "coming" or "arrival." The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ and the anticipation of His return.
In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in His people today, and that He will come again.
The acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live "between the times" and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people.
So the church celebrates God’s breaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation. It also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from oppression and injustice and the evils of the world.
It is the hope, however faint at times, that God's kingdom will come to His people and in His creation. It is the hope for the Messiah who will bring peace and justice and righteousness to the world.
In Eastern Orthodox Churches, Advent has been a time of fasting and penitence for sins similar to Lent. However, a different emphasis for the season of Advent has gradually unfolded in much of the rest of the church. Advent has come to be celebrated more in terms of expectation or anticipation.
The anticipation of the coming of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament and Judaism was in the context of longing for redemption from oppression, injustice and the systemic evil of the world expressed in empires and tyrants.
As Christians we long for God to make things right and we celebrate the arrival of the Messiah with a joyous sense of expectancy. We celebrate with gladness the great promise of Advent. Advent prayers are of humble devotion and commitment, prayers of submission, prayers for deliverance, prayers from those walking in darkness who are awaiting and anticipating a great light.
Historically, the primary sanctuary color of Advent is purple. This is the color of penitence and fasting. The purple of Advent is also the color of suffering used during Lent and Holy Week. This points to an important connection between Jesus’ birth and death.
In recent times, Advent has undergone a shift in emphasis, reflected in a change of colors used in many churches. Most Protestant churches now use royal blue or bright blue to distinguish Advent from Lent. The colors represent royalty and the living waters of new creation.
Except in the Eastern churches, the penitential aspect of the season has been almost totally replaced by an emphasis on hope and anticipation.
In congregational worship, the Advent wreath is the central symbol of the season, the focal point for drawing the congregation into the beginning of the story of redemption that unfolds throughout the church year. For this reason, members of the congregation are often involved in lighting the Advent candles and reading seasonal scriptures on Sundays.
The symbolic wreath is a circular evergreen (real or artificial) with five candles, four around the wreath and one in the center. The circle of the wreath reminds us of God's eternity and endless mercy, which has no beginning or end. The green of the wreath speaks of the hope that we have in God, the hope of newness, of renewal, of eternal life. The center candle, or Christ candle, symbolizes the light of God coming into the world. The encircling candles are lit in sequence during the cycle of Advent Sundays.
The candle for the third Sunday of Advent is traditionally pink or rose, and symbolizes the joy of the anticipated arrival of the Christ. It marks a shift from the more solemn tone of the first two Sundays of Advent that focus on preparation and hope, to a more joyous atmosphere of expectancy. Sometimes the colors of the sanctuary and vestments are also changed to rose for this Sunday.
The three purple candles of Advent may be associated with different aspects of the story in different churches, or even in different years. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season.
So, the sequence for the other three Sundays might be Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Or Love, Joy, Peace. Or John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi. Or the annunciation, proclamation and fulfillment of the promise. Whatever sequence is used, the scripture readings, prayers, lighting of the candles, the participation of worshipers in the service, all are geared to unfolding the story of redemption through God’s grace in the Incarnation.
The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world, the one who has come into the darkness of our lives to bring newness, life, and hope. It also reminds us that we are called to be a light to the world as we reflect the light of God's grace to others.
The weekly progression in the lighting of the candles symbolizes our waiting experience. As the candles are lit over the four-week period, more and more light is shed into the world. The flame of each new candle reminds worshippers that something is happening, and that more is yet to come. Finally, the light that has come into the world is plainly visible as the Christ candle is lit at Christmas, and the faithful rejoice that the hope and promise of long ago have been realized.