Symbols of Advent: Significance & Traditions

by Hyacinth

Advent is a significant season in the Christian liturgical calendar, a time of anticipation and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. This period, observed in the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is rich with symbolism that reflects its themes of waiting, hope, and renewal. These symbols, deeply embedded in Christian tradition, help the faithful prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ. This article delves into the various symbols of Advent, exploring their meanings and how they are used in contemporary practices.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Advent season. Traditionally, it is a circular garland of evergreen branches, representing eternity and the everlasting life brought through Jesus Christ. The wreath holds four candles, typically three purple and one pink, each symbolizing one of the four weeks of Advent.

Significance of the Candles

Each candle on the Advent wreath holds specific significance, and they are lit sequentially on each Sunday of Advent:

The First Candle (Hope): Also known as the Prophecy Candle, this purple candle represents hope and the prophecies of the coming of Christ. It symbolizes the anticipation and expectation of the Messiah.

The Second Candle (Faith): Known as the Bethlehem Candle, this purple candle signifies faith and reminds Christians of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. It emphasizes the faithfulness required during the Advent season.

The Third Candle (Joy): This pink candle, called the Shepherd’s Candle, symbolizes joy. It reflects the joy the shepherds felt upon hearing the news of Christ’s birth. The pink color represents a shift from repentance to celebration as the faithful await the coming joy of Christmas.

The Fourth Candle (Peace): The Angel’s Candle, another purple candle, represents peace and the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” It signifies the culmination of the waiting period and the impending arrival of the Prince of Peace.

In some traditions, a fifth candle, known as the Christ Candle, is placed in the center of the wreath and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. This white candle symbolizes the light of Christ coming into the world.

The Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar is another popular symbol used to mark the days of Advent. These calendars often feature windows or doors that open to reveal a small treat, scripture, or picture each day leading up to Christmas. The tradition began in the 19th century in Germany, where families would mark the days leading to Christmas with chalk lines on their doors.

Evolution and Modern Usage

Modern Advent calendars come in various forms, from simple paper calendars to elaborate wooden houses with drawers. Some calendars are themed, incorporating elements like chocolates, toys, or even beauty products, but the underlying principle remains the same: to count down the days to Christmas while reflecting on the season’s spiritual significance.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree is a lesser-known yet deeply symbolic tradition during Advent. Named after Jesse, the father of King David, the Jesse Tree represents the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The concept stems from Isaiah 11:1, which says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots, a Branch will bear fruit.”

Symbolism and Decorations

Each day of Advent, an ornament depicting a story from the Bible is added to the tree. These ornaments represent various ancestors of Jesus and key events in salvation history, linking the Old and New Testaments. Common symbols include:

An Apple: Representing Adam and Eve and the fall of man.

A Rainbow: Symbolizing God’s promise to Noah.

A Star: Representing Abraham and the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars.

A Ladder: Symbolizing Jacob’s dream.

A Coat of Many Colors: Representing Joseph.

A Tablet with the Ten Commandments: Symbolizing Moses.

The Jesse Tree serves as a visual and tangible reminder of the faith journey leading to Christ’s birth, emphasizing the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus.

The Chrismon Tree

Similar to the Jesse Tree, the Chrismon tree is adorned with ornaments that represent various aspects of the Christian faith. “Chrismon” is a portmanteau of “Christ” and “monogram,” and the ornaments, known as Chrismons, are often white and gold to symbolize purity and majesty.

Chrismons and Their Meanings

Common Chrismons include:

The Cross: Representing Jesus’ sacrifice and the salvation of humanity.

The Chi-Rho: An ancient Christian symbol formed by the first two Greek letters of “Christ.”

The Alpha and Omega: Signifying Christ as the beginning and the end.

The Dove: Representing the Holy Spirit.

The Chrismon tree, typically a white or green evergreen tree, helps Christians focus on the theological aspects of the Advent season and the broader story of Christ’s mission.

Advent Music

Music plays a significant role in the Advent season, with many hymns and carols emphasizing themes of anticipation, prophecy, and preparation. Unlike Christmas carols, which celebrate the birth of Christ, Advent hymns focus on waiting and expectation.

Popular Advent Hymns

Some well-known Advent hymns include:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: This ancient hymn captures the longing and hope for the Messiah.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”: Written by Charles Wesley, it expresses the anticipation of Christ’s coming.

“Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”: A hymn that reflects on the Second Coming of Christ.

These hymns are typically sung during worship services, enhancing the spiritual atmosphere of Advent and helping congregants reflect on the season’s significance.

The Advent Fast

In some Christian traditions, Advent is a time of fasting and penitence, similar to Lent. This practice, more common in Orthodox Christianity, involves abstaining from certain foods and engaging in acts of charity and prayer.

1. Historical Context and Modern Practices

Historically, the Advent fast was a period of self-denial and spiritual preparation. In the Western Church, fasting practices have evolved, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Nativity Fast, also known as the Advent Fast, is still observed. This period, lasting 40 days, involves abstaining from meat, dairy, and sometimes oil and wine.

2. Spiritual Purpose

The purpose of the Advent fast is to purify the body and soul, making room for the celebration of Christ’s birth. It encourages Christians to focus on their spiritual health, prayer life, and acts of charity. By practicing self-discipline, believers are reminded of the sacrifices made by Jesus and are better prepared to welcome Him into their lives.

The Colors of Advent

The liturgical colors used during Advent carry significant meaning and enhance the worship experience by symbolizing different aspects of the season.

1. Purple

Purple is the primary color used during Advent in many Western Christian traditions. It represents penance, preparation, and sacrifice. The use of purple reflects the somber, reflective nature of Advent as a time of preparation for both the celebration of Christ’s birth and His Second Coming.

2. Pink

The third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, is marked by the use of pink. This color signifies joy and represents a lightening of the mood as the faithful draw closer to Christmas. It serves as a reminder of the joy that is to come and offers a moment of respite from the more penitential aspects of Advent.

3. Blue

In some traditions, especially in Lutheran and Anglican churches, blue is used during Advent. Blue symbolizes hope and the night sky before the dawn, emphasizing the anticipation of Christ’s coming. It also represents the Virgin Mary, reflecting her role in the Advent story.

SEE ALSO: A Comprehensive Guide to Advent Preparation for Christians

Advent Readings and Reflections

Scripture readings during Advent are carefully selected to reflect the themes of waiting, prophecy, and preparation. These readings often come from the Old Testament prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospels, providing a comprehensive narrative of anticipation and fulfillment.

1. Key Advent Scriptures

Isaiah 9:6-7: This prophecy speaks of the coming Messiah, highlighting the hope and peace He will bring.

Jeremiah 33:14-16: A promise of a righteous branch from David’s line, emphasizing God’s faithfulness.

Luke 1:26-38: The Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God.

Matthew 1:18-25: The story of Joseph’s dream, affirming Jesus’ divine origin and Joseph’s role.

2. Daily Reflections

Many Christians engage in daily reflections during Advent, using devotionals or guided meditations to deepen their understanding of the season. These reflections often focus on themes such as hope, peace, joy, and love, helping believers to align their hearts with the spirit of Advent.

The Advent Crown

In addition to the Advent wreath, some traditions use an Advent crown, a similar arrangement with candles. The crown typically features four or five candles, each with specific meanings aligned with those of the Advent wreath.

Usage and Symbolism

The Advent crown is used in homes and churches, with one candle lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas. Like the wreath, the crown’s circular shape symbolizes eternity, and the evergreen branches signify everlasting life. The progression of lighting the candles reflects the growing light of Christ as His birth approaches.

The Advent Star

The Advent star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem, is a prominent symbol representing the star that guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. This symbol is often displayed in homes and churches as a reminder of the light of Christ that guides believers.

Representation in Decorations

The Advent star is commonly seen in Christmas decorations, such as tree toppers and window hangings. It serves as a beacon of hope and a visual reminder of the divine guidance that led to the revelation of Christ to the world.

Advent Food Traditions

While fasting is a component of Advent, many cultures also have special foods associated with the season. These foods are often prepared with care and enjoyed as part of the festive preparations for Christmas.

1. Traditional Advent Foods

Stollen: A German fruitcake filled with nuts, spices, and dried fruit, often dusted with powdered sugar.

Lussekatter: Swedish saffron buns traditionally baked for St. Lucia’s Day on December 13th.

Panettone: An Italian sweet bread loaf filled with raisins and candied citrus peel, enjoyed throughout the Advent and Christmas season.

2. Symbolic Meaning

These foods often carry symbolic meanings related to the season. For example, the spices in stollen and the saffron in lussekatter are reminiscent of the gifts brought by the Magi, while the richness of panettone signifies the joy and abundance of the Christmas celebration.

Conclusion

The symbols of Advent are rich in meaning and tradition, each contributing to the overall spiritual journey of the season. From the evergreen branches of the Advent wreath to the daily reflections on scripture, these symbols guide believers through a period of anticipation, preparation, and hope.

By understanding and engaging with these symbols, Christians can deepen their experience of Advent, making it a time of meaningful reflection and spiritual growth. The season’s rituals and traditions, whether ancient or modern, serve to remind the faithful of the profound significance of Christ’s coming and the promise of eternal life.

In embracing these symbols, the faithful are invited to prepare their hearts and homes for the celebration of Christmas, ensuring that the true meaning of the season remains at the forefront of their festivities. As the light of each candle grows brighter with each passing week, so too does the anticipation and joy of welcoming the Savior into the world.

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