Incarnation Cycle

Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part II)

May 09, 2007


Read Part I of this 2-part article.

The Environment for the Season

When thinking of the seasonal environment, we need to go beyond the static environment.  Worship is dynamic and kinetic, and so is the environment.  The free-hanging suspended Advent wreath, seasonal mobiles, processional banners, help to underline the progression of the season.  There might be one banner in the procession the first week; two banners the second week; etc.

       Liturgical Color

Two color schemes are used for the season of Advent.  Since the codification of the liturgical colors in the Roman Catholic Church, purple had been the color of the penitential seasons: Advent and Lent.  Other Christian denominations also followed this custom.  As the penitential character of Advent diminished in favor of a spirituality of anticipation and expectation, there has been a desire to differentiate this season from Lent, including in the use of liturgical color.   Many Christian communions today have picked up on the use of blue for the season of Advent, a practice which dates back to some ecclesiastical regions in Medieval Europe and which is very widespread among the Lutheran and Anglican communions.   Across the denominational borders, one might opt for bluish purples, blues and rose.  For a fitting choice of the color pallet of this season, we need only look at the early morning sky on a clear winter morning in places like the upper Midwest region of the United States.

       The Advent Wreath

Historical roots and theological interpretation.  The origin of the Advent wreath is somewhat obscure.  There is evidence that in pre-Christian Scandinavia a wheel was decorated with candles while prayers were offered for the wheel of the earth to be turned so that light and warmth would return.  During the Middle Ages, Christians adopted this pagan ritual and began to use it in domestic settings.  By the year 1500, more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath had developed.

Its symbols of life and light apply very easily to the Christian cosmology in which Christ is both the light that dispels the darkness and the life of the world.  The wheel itself, a circle with neither beginning nor end, signifies eternal life.  The evergreens also signify eternal life, more specifically: pine, holly and yew implying immortality; cedar: strength and healing; laurel: victory over suffering; pine cones and nuts: life and resurrection.  In its totality, the wreath symbolizes new and eternal life gained through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The four candles added to the wreath symbolize the four weeks of Advent.  According to some traditions, three or four of these candles are purple, referring to the prayer and sacrifices offered in preparation for the celebration of Christmas.  Sometimes, one of the candles -- the one lit on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent -- is rose and invites the people to rejoice because the middle of Advent has been reached.

As the emphasis is no longer on the penitential character of Advent, but rather on anticipation and expectation, using white candles has become more popular.

Some very (too) creative communities have a different color for each Sunday of Advent, symbolizing the meaning of that specific Sunday.  The problem with this and similar far-fetched schemes is that their meaning is totally lost for the people.

The appearance of the wreath.  When building the Advent wreath, make sure that its size is relative to the building.  The wreath should be in the shape of a wheel and it should preferably be hanging to allow it to turn freely.  The best location for the wreath is in the center of the church, above the assembly.  Use fresh greens for the wreath and substantial candles.  Make provision for the candles to be kept burning once lit.

A practical suggestion:  install a (mechanical) pulley in the ceiling of the church.  This pulley should be located between the roof and the ceiling so that it remains invisible from the floor of the church.  Have a substantial metal frame constructed that will support the greens.  Wrap generous amounts of greens around the frame.  Add holly and pine cones.  Resist the temptation to add ribbons, bows or any other decorative elements.  This is the time to be earthy.  In order to be able to keep the candles burning, it is best to hang lanterns with globes either above the wreath or else, immediately next to the wreath.

Ritual use.  Because the Advent wreath has become the central symbol of the season, it is good that it be integrated in the celebration of the liturgy on each Sunday of Advent.  The opening procession may halt beneath the wreath for a blessing and the solemn lighting of one of the candles.  The procession can then continue while singing the remainder of the song.  When everyone is in their place, the presider can continue with the opening prayer (the collect).

       Advent Mobiles, Banners and Temporary Sculptures

The Incarnation cycle, not unlike the Paschal cycle has occasioned beautiful contemporary liturgical art.  The sanctuary banners of the 1960s have made way for very creative ways of integrating the entire space in the environment for the season.  Ribbons, cloth, cut and folded paper allow for the entire parish to engage in the preparation of the church. 

Identify some leaders in the parish; the parish might even develop an artist-in-residence program to assist in these and other environmental activities.  However, it is important to remember that the environment is in service of worship, not the other way around.  Also, each season has its primary symbols, which need to be focal.  The Advent wreath is the primary symbol of Advent and should be enhanced by other decorations, not obscured.

       The Jesse Tree

Tree branches, and, depending on the size of the church, entire trees, such as birth, are often brought into the church in order to symbolize the Stem of Jesse or simply death awaiting new life.  Some churches will hang tiny mirrors in these trees or decorate them with lights.  It is best to leave those trees be.  Undecorated, they communicate their message most easily.  Leave the trees in place throughout the entire Incarnation season.  As evergreens are added, a beautiful dialogue between life and death will be created.

       Outdoor Environment

Outdoor banners in the colors of the seasons; wreaths decorated with lights which are hung in the arches of the portico; evergreen roping intertwined with lights that are used to decorate light poles; combinations of branches, pine cones and pods that are attached to the doors; etc., assist in announcing to the world that Christians are celebrating the Incarnation.  In addition, the spilling out of the seasonal environment into the world emphasizes that liturgy and life or worship and work are one.  Worship neither begins nor ends at the doors of the church.  Worship happens on both sides of those doors.

       Worship Aids

If you use worship aides rather than hymnals, these, too, should reflect the season.  The choice of paper, color of ink, and decorative elements can assist in the illumination of the spirituality of the season.

       Beyond the Traditional Advent Environment

In addition to the liturgical and biblical symbols, which constitute the Incarnation cycle, there are human and cultural realities that should be taken into account.  During the season of Advent, the world, e.g., celebrates World AIDS Day (December 1) and International Human Rights Day (December 10).  It might be beneficial to the community to look outward and see how these celebrations might impact the Incarnation observance.  For instance, the International Human Rights Day -- the day on which the Dalai Lama received the International Nobel Prize for Peace -- could occasion the use of prayer flags into the liturgical environment, a Buddhist custom that has been brought to the U.S. by refugees from Tibet.  Imagine large mobiles, suspended from the ceiling and covered with prayer flags in blues, purple and rose, on which the children have written their intentions.  Every time the flags move, it is said that the prayer written on the flags rises to God.

Johan van Parys is the Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.


Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I)
Christmas: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Epiphany: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Solemnity (Part I and Part II)
Lectio Divina -- Visio Divina
On Becoming the Paschal Mystery (Part I, Part II, Part III)
The Fundamental Virtues of Liturgical Architecture
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus...Stations of the Cross
We are the Body of Christ

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