Advent Wreaths and Penitential Rites

These comments were originally spurred by a follow-up article in which I wrote: “From a liturgical point of view, only the blessing of the wreath on the first Sunday of Advent is included among those that may be used at Mass.

Dec 11, 2014

Q: I am hesitant to layer the introductory rites of the Mass during Advent with more words; the Church omits the Gloria during Advent to remind us of the season's simplicity and even its penitential character. However, the Advent wreath has become an important symbol in many parishes. For the lighting of the candles to be featured at one weekend Mass but not the others would make little sense to the people, since they don’t attend more than one weekend Mass. I have resolved the situation by having an acolyte or server light the candles during the Penitential Act. We use the third form, and for the first three Sundays we use the first option: “You came to gather the nations ….” On the last Sunday, and on Christmas, we use the second option, “Lord Jesus, you are mighty God and Prince of peace ….” Thus, something is being sung or said, and the lighting is not simply perfunctory. On weekdays, the candles are lighted before Mass. Any comment? — T.D., Western Australia

A: These comments were originally spurred by a follow-up article in which I wrote: “From a liturgical point of view, only the blessing of the wreath on the first Sunday of Advent is included among those that may be used at Mass. This rite has received the approval of the Holy See for those countries that requested its inclusion in their translation and adaptation of the Book of Blessings. It is not found in the original Latin benedictional.

“The multitude of other rites and ceremonies that have grown up around the lighting of the wreath are mostly geared to family celebrations. These may be profitably used in church, but outside of Mass. For example, it is possible to organize a prayer service before the Saturday evening Mass.

“If, however, 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 a taper from an earlier candle and, saying nothing, use this to light the next candle. 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.”

While I would agree with our reader that the role of the Advent wreath has become more important, it is still only one non-liturgical symbol and its importance should not be exaggerated. The Advent liturgy is itself sufficient to provide all the necessary teaching material so as to prepare for Christmas.

With respect to my earlier reply I see no great difficulty in lighting the candle at the beginning of each Sunday Mass in the simple manner I described.

I would balk, however, at mixing it with the Penitential Act in the manner described by our reader. Four reasons come to mind.

First, general liturgical principles do not allow anyone, on his own authority, to add or remove anything from the sacred rites.

Second, this proposal removes the necessary freedom of the celebrant to use any other form of the penitential rite and thus subjects the liturgy to the needs of a devotional practice.

Third, I doubt that combining the lighting of the candle with the penitential rite sends the right message. The admission of our sinfulness is an important part of every Mass, as we prepare our souls to live the sacred mysteries. Combining it with the lighting of the candle quite likely would distract from this primary meaning toward various other messages that are best reserved for other moments.

Finally the Advent wreath itself has various shades of meaning and is not essentially penitential in character. 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.

These other nuances could be lost by associating it too closely to the penitential rite. I am certain of our reader's good faith and his desire to obtain the best pastoral benefit from this devotional act. However, I remain unconvinced that this proposal is a viable pastoral action and in full conformity with liturgical norms. --Answered by Legionary of Christ Fr Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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