Why is there a pink candle in the Advent wreath?

Advent-Wreath-third Sunday

For those familiar with the liturgical calendar, this upcoming Sunday (December 15) is the third Sunday in the season of Advent. A common practice in churches and homes during the season of Advent is the progressive lighting of four candles – three purple and one pink. Each week, another candle is lit as a symbol of expectation for God’s presence on earth. On the first, second, and fourth weeks in Advent, a purple candle is lit. On the third Sunday, (yes, on the third Sunday), a pink candle is lit.

In every liturgical act of the church, there is special purpose and meaning behind the patterns, symbols, and practices employed in worship. As can sometimes be the case with liturgical acts of the church, the purpose and meaning can be left neglected even though the practice persists. When uneducated, the church is left in confusion and with unanswered questions.

Lighting a pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent tends to be one of the more ambiguous practices some churches continue to do. Each Advent I hear questions and witness confusion concerning the lighting of the pink candle. For starters, there is usually debate on whether the pink candle is lit on the third or the fourth Sunday. In addition, I frequently hear the following two questions asked:

1)Why is there one pink candle in the midst of three purple candles?

2) Why is the pink candle lit on the third Sunday in Advent?

If you have asked those same questions or know someone who has, I hope the liturgical and historical context I share in this post will help give clarity to the purpose and meaning of the pink candle.

 

From catechism to calendar…

First, I think it is fitting to give a little background to the season of Advent. The development of the season of Advent arose from catechetical practices in the ancient church. As early Christians moved into increasingly pagan areas of the world, it became important for the church to find regular patterns to teach and train new converts in Christian belief and behavior. Likewise, the church wanted new converts to hear, know, celebrate, and experience God’s redeeming story through the life of Jesus Christ. To aid in new converts’ identification with the life of Christ, as well as to provide regular patterns for the church to celebrate the story of God, a yearly cycle was established for worship.

Over time, the yearly structure of worship was organized into what is commonly known today as the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar divides the year into a regular rotation of seasons, each signified with its own mood, practices, theological emphases, and scriptural focus. Worship is structured through cycles of light and darkness, in patterns of feasting and fasting. Particular colors displayed in paraments around the church and in the vestments worn by clergy represent each season of the liturgical calendar. All of these factors contribute to one common goal – to shape Christian life and worship in God’s story.

 

From Epiphany to Advent…

In the ancient church, two main feast days were celebrated as the most notable of all in the liturgical calendar: Epiphany and Easter.* Epiphany signified the revelation of Jesus Christ through his birth and baptism as God in human form. Easter signified victory over sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The church’s reason for highlighting Epiphany and Easter as focal points in the liturgical year was due to the importance of these Christ-events in the Christian life. Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection is the means of human salvation. The sacrament of baptism is the act of identification with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, Epiphany and Easter became the services where new converts were baptized and fully welcomed into the church.

Since the ancient church considered baptism the mark of a life completely re-oriented in Christ, a season of baptismal preparation was established preceding Easter and Epiphany. This season was an intense time of prayer and scrutiny, a time to commit one’s self to the purification of sin and transformation into Christ-like righteousness. In time, the season of baptismal preparation prior to Easter developed into the season of Lent, while the season of baptismal preparation prior to Epiphany developed into the season of Advent.

 

From repentance to joy…

In many ways, the season of Advent has been and continues to be quite similar to Lent. Both are seasons of penance and repentance, sacrifice and simplicity. They are contrite seasons observed with solemn prayer and fasting. Furthermore, according to their historic purpose, they each call the church to reflect on the baptismal reality of dying and rising with Christ. Yet, where Lent is a time for the church to focus on Christ’s salvation through Christ’s life, death, and ultimately his resurrection on Easter, Advent is a time for the church to focus on hope through Christ’s incarnation revealed in his first coming in human form, and anticipated in his second coming in final victory.

The traditional color chosen for paraments and vestments in the church during Lent and Advent has traditionally been a deep purple, signifying royalty, repentance, and suffering. This often sets a quite somber and melancholy tone for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Still, in the midst of such solemnity, the ancient church recognized that Christians are never a people without joy. When true repentance occurs, joyful obedience is the result. Thus, there is joy to be celebrated even in the most penitential times. Moreover, joy is not only a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in an individual’s life, but it is also a characteristic common in God’s Kingdom.

 

From purple to pink…

To embody such a joyful attitude within patterns of worship during the seasons of Lent and Advent, the ancient church set aside one Sunday in each season to focus on joy. On this Sunday, the color of the paraments and vestments changed from purple to pink. The color pink (or more accurately, rose) actually only appears two weeks of the liturgical year – the fourth Sunday in Lent and the third Sunday in Advent. Each of these Sundays falls close to the middle of the seasons as a reminder for the church to never cease rejoicing.

It is believed that the use of the color pink actually began during Lent. In the ancient church, a practice began on the fourth Sunday of Lent where the Pope would give a pink rose to a citizen, emphasizing the daily joys Christ brings. In that same mindset, the church began to change the paraments and vestments on the fourth Sunday in Lent from purple to pink. To center the church’s worship on joy, services began with the statement, “Laetare Jerusalem” (or “Rejoice, O Jersualem”), causing the fourth Sunday of Lent to become known as Laetare Sunday.

The church later brought the practice of wearing and displaying the pink rose vestments into the season of Advent. The third Sunday in Advent was called Guadete (or Rejoice) Sunday, so named for the use of Philippians 4:4 as a central scripture read and sung in worship: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” The candle in the Advent wreath was changed from purple to pink on the third Sunday in Advent. Even today, the third candle in the Advent wreath is commonly referred to as the joy candle.**

 

From confusion to awareness…

As many of us prepare for worship this week, let us not forget that in the midst of the solemnity of Advent there is joy! We rejoice that Christ has come incarnate into this world! We celebrate with hope and eagerness that he will come again!

In closing, I think it is appropriate to consider some ways that joy can be emphasized in the midst of Advent. Many churches (mainly Protestant) do not continue to use the traditional “Guadete” as a focal point of worship. Other churches may not do candle lightings, or if they do, may have intentional reasons for choosing all purple candles. In the midst of diversity of Advent practice, how can an awareness of joy be brought into worship this week?

Here are a few (meager) suggestions:

  • Have a prayer time that focuses on joy in the midst of waiting/preparation. Share praises and celebrations that allow the church to rejoice in the Lord.
  • Allow a time for testimonies where repentance as led to joyful obedience in Christ-like living.
  • Sing or recite lyrics to the hymn “Joy to the World.” (This hymn by Isaac Watts is often sung as a Christmas hymn, though he wrote it as a song to focus on the second coming of Christ. Read it sometime with that perspective. Viewing the lyrics in light of Christ’s final reign often brings my heart to overflow with joyful expectation.)
  • Commit to acts of mercy throughout the week that can help bring joy to another person’s life. Prayerfully consider who may need such joy to break through the darkness during this season.
  • If you light a pink candle this week, find an appropriate way to provide background or explanation to its meaning and purpose. Be careful to not be too didactic within worship itself, but consider how you might intentionally inform your church about joy in the midst of Advent.

Admittedly, my list of suggestions is small and limited, (and I am posting it quite late for the purposes of worship planning), but hopefully it can spark an idea or prompt some form of practice. What suggestions would you add? Are there any practices you have done to help the church focus on joy in the midst of Advent?

I pray that the joy of Christ fills our worship this Sunday as we continue through the season of Advent. May we proclaim in confidence with joy that Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again!

 

 

 

*It could easily be argued that in the western church today, the two highest days of celebration are Christmas and Easter. Many ancient liturgical documents, however, show Epiphany as being both older and having a more important place in Christian history than Christmas. Many eastern churches still give prominence to Epiphany over Christmas.

**The development of the practice of candle lighting during Advent is somewhat obscure. At one point, the church did a similar practice of lighting seven purple candles during the season of Lent. Perhaps the practice was simply carried over from Lent to Advent. There is also speculation that the liturgical act originated in Germany, adapting a pagan practice where the Germanic people would light candles during the long December nights as a symbol of hope in the darkness.

 

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About jonathanapowers

Jonathan serves with his wife, Faith, as the director of student ministries for World Gospel Mission at Asbury University, where he is also an adjunct professor of Worship Arts. He recently received his doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL. Jonathan serves as the worship pastor for the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY and is the co-author with Jason Jackson and Teddy Ray of Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Tradition published by Seedbed.

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