“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
Tonight’s the night! Tonight is the time we have been waiting for and preparing for during the 4 weeks of Advent. Today we gather in community to rejoice, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a time filled with tradition and perhaps some nostalgia as we contemplate Christmas’ of the past. It can also be a time that may have twinges of sorrow for losses in our lives, for people who are missing from these pews, from our tables but not from our hearts.
Christmas eve is a time when we focus on what the birth of the Christ child has meant and means in our lives. It is a time when we fervently pray for peace.
As you look around the sanctuary on this Christmas eve take note of how different it is from the rest of the year. We have our tree, we have our nativity scene - where the baby Jesus has now been placed and we have flowers and candles and our Advent wreath.
How much do you know about the history and tradition of the Advent wreath? On this Christmas eve I would like to talk a little bit about the wreath and why it is an important part of our Advent preparations and our service this evening.
So why do we have the wreath? Why are the candles different colours? Why do we have a short liturgy at the beginning of our Advent and Christmas eve services where we have a reflection, some music and lighting of the candles? Why do we do this each year? Is it just habit and tradition - the way things are always done or is it an important part of our faith journey?
I would say it is an important part of our preparation for the birth of Christ and our journey through Advent. So let’s learn a little bit more!
The concept of the Advent wreath began with German Lutherans in the 16th century, but it took a couple of centuries to be in widespread use. It was also a family custom and was not at first a part of corporate worship. Do you have an Advent wreath at home? Are you lighting the candles each week as part of your preparations for Christmas? Perhaps today the Advent calendar is more prevalent in homes than a wreath!
Research by Prof. Haemig of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, points to Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Lutheran pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor, as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. During Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 24 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America. Professor Haemig's research also indicates that the custom did not reach the United States until the 1930s, even among German Lutheran immigrants.
In medieval times Advent was a period of fasting during which people's thoughts were directed to the expected second coming of Christ. The Advent wreath serves as a reminder of the approach of the feast.
Now let’s take a look at the wreath itself!
The wreath is circular to represent God’s infinite love. It is traditionally made of evergreens to represent the hope of eternal life in Jesus.
There are 5 candles in our wreath. The candles that we have been lighting each Sunday represent Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. I think it is especially significant that the candle that burns longest in the season of Advent is the candle of Hope. You may notice that the 3rd candle is a different colour - it is traditionally pink to coincide with the 3rd Sunday of Advent - Joy. Our centre candle is the one that is lit first on Christmas eve - this is the Christ candle. It is white because that is the festival colour in our liturgical calendar. That is why the hangings and my vestments are white today. We have moved from the blue of Advent to the white of celebration.
So now the candles are all lit. We have completed our time of preparation and now we rejoice! We have contemplated hope, peace, joy and love. And now we are ready to welcome the Christ child. May these candles kindle hope, peace, joy and love in our hearts this Christmas eve and throughout the year.