At the heart of the Madonna House domestic celebration of Advent, the stuff we do outside of church proper, is the nightly ceremony of the lighting of the Advent wreath.
We do it at the beginning of supper. After grace, the priest prays a short prayer, which changes to match the theme of each of the weeks of Advent, and then as the appropriate number of candles is lit, we sing a variation of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. In the first week, one candle is lit by the ‘youngest child’, whichever MH guest is the youngest among us. In week two, two are lit by the ‘oldest child’, our oldest member. Week three, three are lit by the ‘mother of the family’, the director general of women (and it is only then that the pink candle, symbol of the anticipated joy of Christmas, is lit), and week four all four are lit by the ‘father’ – the director of the laymen.
Here are the prayers we use in MH for this custom:
Week One: Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his Coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.
Week Two: Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
Week Three: O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord's nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
Week Four: Pour forth we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his passion and cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Who lives and reigns with youin the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
So that’s what we do here. The symbolism of the wreath is simple, but rich. The round shape symbolizes eternity; the evergreen branches symbolize hope. The four candles symbolize the light of Christ, already beginning to shine in the darkness of the world, but growing in intensity as the season progresses. The purple candles reflect the subdued penitential quality of the season; the pink candle the joy that breaks through because Christ has come already, and is with us now, even as we wait his final coming.
We make it ourselves – no shortage of pine and cedar branches and willing hands and crafty know-how here. I understand that one can buy an Advent wreath. If the budget does not extend to that, or to the purchasing of wreath forms and the like, or if you (like me) are artistically challenged, you can even ‘fake it’ by arranging the branches on a large round plate or platter – the branches obscure the underlying plate, and the effect is just as pretty.
For me, it is all about the light, Advent as the season of light in the darkness. Of course, we don’t experience ‘darkness’ quite the way our ancestors did, do we? The ordinary citizen lights his house more brilliantly than the kings and queens of old. If you live in a city, real darkness is almost never experienced; we country folk encounter it a bit more, but even then, one flick of a light switch, and it is gone.
I have meditated on that in connection with the Advent wreath. The candles are lit, and remain so through supper. But our dining room is lit up, too – we don’t eat in the dark, after all. And so you have to look for that gentle light of Christ – it doesn’t dominate the space in any fashion.
It seems to me that this corresponds well to the spiritual situation of modern man. Christ is real, and the light is shining, the word is spoken, the promise is given. But we have to look for it, we have to be attentive. The world is noisy, brightly lit, shiny and flashy and loud. The gentle light of Christ (his light is always gentle) does not impose itself on us.
And yet, there it is. O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. A candle is lit, a prayer is said, a wreath bears silent testimony to the hope of humanity and the everlasting fidelity of God. And this is our Advent prayer.