As we enter into the season of Advent, where we patiently and prayerfully await the coming of the newborn king, we will look at some of the traditions and customs we use to celebrate the season. Humans are physical beings and therefore use interactions with the physical world around them to communicate spiritual realities. We use the totality of our human expression through our five senses to relate to the world around us, as well as relating to God. This is why the Catholic Church uses things like music, art, water, oil, incense, gestures, postures, and candles — because God is the author of all creation and using His creation enriches our understanding of Him and how we relate to Him.
The Advent wreath is one of the most prominent symbols we use during this time. A wreath is an ancient symbol, which has been commonly used in many cultures that even pre-date Christianity. The wreath can symbolize different things to different cultures. By the time the Middle Ages came around, Christians found that the wreath could serve as a visual tool for catechesis and evangelization, resulting in a deeper understanding of God. A wreath is a circle with no beginning and no end, which represents the eternal nature of God, as well as His eternal love for us. When we look at an Advent wreath, we can meditate on the circular shape and look forward to our eventual participation of eternal life with God, with hope.
The evergreens used to create the Advent wreath are also symbolic, since the coming of Jesus brings with it a promise of new and everlasting life. In the book, Celebrating a Merry Catholic Christmas, Fr. William Saunders explains additional symbolism of the different types of plants that are typically used in the creation of Advent wreaths. “The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. The prickly leaves of holly remind us of the crown of thorns, and its red berries, the blood of our Lord.”
We also use candles with our Advent wreaths which have their own symbolic meaning for our Faith. Candles in the Catholic Church always represent the light of Christ to the world, as well as how we reflect that light ourselves. Also, when all four candles are lit, it represents how our hearts are set ablaze in the anticipation of our Lord’s coming. The three purple candles represent the virtues of hope, love, and peace. The purple signifies prayer, penance, and sacrifice, not unlike the season of Lent. The rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) represents the virtue of joy as we rejoice that the time for the Messiah has almost come. As you look upon your Advent wreath, either at home or in the church, reflect on the richness of its symbolism and how it unites you to other Christians across time and space in the hopeful anticipation of Christ’s coming.
Another symbol we use during this season of Advent is the Christmas tree. The origin of the Christmas tree is attributed to St. Boniface (675-754 AD) who was charged with missionary work in Germany in 722 by Pope St. Gregory II. St. Boniface and his companions pushed the pace of their trip in order to reach the Germanic people by Christmas so that they might evangelize about the coming of Jesus. When they arrived, they found the people carrying out a human sacrifice in the shadow of a large oak tree in order to appease the pagan god, Thor, for their sins. Having arrived just in time, St. Boniface grabbed the ax that was to be used to sacrifice a small boy and preached about the one true sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and the victory over death. He then used the ax to strike down the oak tree. In his book, Fr. Saunders explains what happened next:
Behind the mighty oak stood a young fir tree, pointing like a cathedral spire toward heaven. St. Boniface again spoke to the people. “This tree shall be your holy tree this night and every Christmas. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of everlasting life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child, the true Savior and Lord of life. Gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes. There it will shelter gifts and acts of kindness.”
The next time you walk past your Christmas tree, consider its symbolism and how it is a visual reminder of our earthly journey to Heaven, reaching upward from the gifts of sacrifice we offer to Jesus in thanksgiving for His gift of sacrifice to us.
Another tree that is commonly used in the Catholic celebration of Advent is the Jesse tree. The tradition originates from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall sprout up from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” The Jesse tree is a particularly useful catechetical tool for anyone, but especially for children. Typically, a small table-top tree is placed somewhere in the home in order to hang ornaments on it. Each day of Advent has its own ornament that leads us through major chronological events throughout salvation history. The activity begins with creation, leads to the great flood, and proceeds through major events and prophecies that finally end on Christmas with the birth of Jesus. When hanging each ornament for the day, the Scripture for that event should be read and meditated upon. This daily devotion in Advent allows us to symbolically journey with our ancestors as they awaited the coming of the promised Savior while simultaneously, we also await His second coming. Additionally, the Jesse tree helps us summarize the whole of Scripture by highlighting the most important events in chronological order.
Perhaps you have not stopped to think about how useful foliage can be for our expression of faith. Perhaps these symbols have faded into the background of an otherwise busy and festive season and you have not taken the time to appreciate the way God’s creation reveals what is true about God. Spend some time this week reflecting on the meaning of various plants used in the Church and what they signify about your knowledge of God and your relationship with Him.