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5th Candle in the Advent Wreath

Date: December 19, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Regarding the Advent wreath: It seems that some churches use a fifth candle at the Christmas liturgy to represent Christ. I couldn’t tell if it was the paschal candle. Is this a correct use? -- C.U., Moorpark, California

A: There does not appear to be any prescribed rule, either officially or even traditionally, except the custom that the rose-colored candle is used for the third (Gaudete) Sunday of Advent.

In most Catholic churches the other three candles are customarily violet in color, although the U.S. Book of Blessings also allows for four violet or white candles. In Protestant use, four red or blue candles are more common, depending on the liturgical practices of each denomination.

Some Eastern Orthodox use six different colored candles (green, blue, gold, white, purple, red) for the six weeks of the Advent and Christmas season. The use of the principal liturgical colors (green, red, violet/rose, and white) is occasionally found in countries such as Italy and Brazil, and are lit in order from the darkest to the lightest hue so as to signify the progressive illumination of the world as Christ approaches.

Among both Catholics and Protestants, the addition of a white candle in the center to represent Christ is usually considered optional.

With respect to the order of lighting them, at least among Catholics, there is no prescribed rule for the first and second candle. It does appear to be a tradition that the order in which they are lit should be maintained.

In other words, when the fourth Sunday arrives the candle from the first week is lit first, then the second week, the rose candle follows, and finally, the last candle begins to shine. This order should be maintained on each occasion that the candles are lit over the four weeks. If a fifth, white candle is used to represent Christ, the light of the world, it would usually be lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Liturgically, for those countries where an official blessing rite has been approved for the Advent wreath, it may be used for the first Mass of the Advent season. On subsequent weeks, if there is no ceremony outside of Mass to light the candles on Sundays 2, 3 and 4 of Advent, I think that it is legitimate for the priest to do so at the very beginning of the first Mass of the corresponding Sunday (or Saturday evening) with no added rituals or texts.

For example, after genuflecting toward the tabernacle or bowing toward the altar, the celebrant could simply light the candles with a taper. He could then go to kiss the altar and continue Mass as normal. The sacristan would light the wreath candles before the celebration of later Masses.

There is quite a lot of debate regarding the origin of the Advent wreath. Some place its beginnings in pre-Christian Scandinavian customs. Others claim the Middle Ages or 16th-century Lutheranism for its creation.

One researcher even proposes that the modern version of the Advent wreath initiated in Hamburg, Germany, in 1839 as a pastoral initiative of Protestant pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881). It slowly spread to other churches, including the Catholic Church, and other countries, reaching the United States in the 1930s.

This latter version is not improbable. A custom, especially an annual one like this one with no official documents mandating its implementation, can appear ancient after about three generations. Apart from North America, the use of the Advent wreath is a relative novelty and has spread to some Latin American countries, and even to Italy, only within the last 30 years or so.

Whatever the historical truth of the origin, the wreath is a symbol that most Christian denominations can share and appreciate.

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is quite beautiful. The circle of the wreath, with no beginning or end and made with evergreens, represents eternity and the everlasting life found in Christ.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent whose progressive lighting expresses the expectation and hope surrounding the coming of the Messiah. There are different systems of considering the four weeks. For example, Week 1 evokes the patriarchs and the virtue of hope. Week 2 recalls the prophets and peace. Week 3 recalls John the Baptist and joy, while Week 4 presents the figure of Mary and the virtue of love. The optional fifth candle represents the light and purity of Christ.

This is just one possible example; other systems of representing the weeks are also possible provided they conform to the season’s liturgical character.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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