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The Advent Wreath’s Lesson on Virtue

In each Season of the Church’s liturgical life, she provides us with unique resources that nourish our growth in holiness. Among these resources stored in the vast treasure house of graces of the Church one finds the sacramentals. All too often left unutilized, the sacramentals both offer us the grace of Christ and signify how that gift of grace ought to be responded to and put into action through a life of virtue so as to grow in conformity with Christ. In this particular Season of Advent, the Church holds out for our use and consideration the Advent Wreath. Through the consideration of the Blessing of an Advent Wreath (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, 73-75) and the significance of the Wreath’s presence in the home throughout the Season of Advent, we find that this sacramental calls us to the intentional cultivation of three particular virtues as we await the coming of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: repentance, religion, and reverence.

The very presence of the Advent Wreath in the home speaks to the first virtue to consider, i.e., repentance, or, penance. As an object not present for the majority of the year its appearance is attention-grabbing, making even those who move about the home on a daily basis turn their heads to at least glance at it, and hopefully, gaze upon it. The effect is naturally magnified when one or more of the Wreath’s candles are lit. Once our gaze has been turned toward the Wreath, we find that at least three of its candles are traditionally colored purple, the same liturgical color used during Lent and worn by priests during the sacrament of reconciliation, to signify penance. Finally, the circular shape of the Wreath also quite naturally signifies a turning motion, and can be related to the function of the virtue of repentance or penance on a more cosmic scale. The theology of the Great Tradition understood all creation to be travelling an exitus/reditus pattern, all things going out from God as their beginning and meant to return back to Him as their end. For Christians the way back to God is through, with, and in the Second Person of the Trinity, Who is Light from Light, True God from True God, and, based on 1 Corinthians 1:24 Augustine would add, Virtue from Virtue (The Trinity, 7.1,1-2,3). This movement of increased participation in the Light and Virtue of Christ as we progress through the weeks of Advent is marked by the igniting of an additional candle.

To the aesthetic language of the Wreath are joined the words of Scripture used during its blessing. There are two readings that can be used for the Blessing, both from the Book of Isaiah. The first speaks directly of the attention-grabbing aspect of light, beginning “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). However, in the other passage from Isaiah which can be used for this sacramental, the call to enact the virtue of repentance is more explicit. The prophet cries “Why do you make us wander, Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we do not fear you?” (Is 63:17) And later confesses on behalf of the people, “we have all become like something unclean, all our just deeds are like polluted rags…There are none who call upon your name” (Is 63:19 & 64:5). In speaking this way, the prophet is exemplifying, no less for us today than the People of Israel in his own time, the virtue of repentance or penance.

Years ago, the Season of Advent was considered to parallel the Season of Lent as a time of preparation and thus as a time of repentance appropriate for acts of penance (see, Patrick Carey, Confession: Catholics, Repentance, & Forgiveness in America, 118-120, 159 & 168). While today the penitential nature of the Season of Advent is muted, the readings for the first two Sundays of Advent retain this theme. Thus, it remains appropriate that the Advent Wreath remain for us a reminder and exhortation to intentionally cultivate the virtue of penance during this liturgical season. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that this virtue instills within us “a moderated grief for…past sins, with the intention of removing them” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 85.1). Moreover, for Aquinas, this virtue not only inclines us toward, but its enaction constitutes the very matter of the Sacrament of Penance (ST, III, q. 84.2). Consequently, in accordance with its purpose as sacramental, by being a call to cultivate the virtue of penance, the Wreath prepares us for the Sacrament of Penance. Practically speaking, two things might be done to intentionally cultivate this virtue during this season. First, if we do not already do so, we might make it a special point of making a nightly examination of conscience. A second way to cultivate this virtue, in more direct keeping with the Season, would be to meditate on the various “O Antiphons” of Advent, which come from the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, which speak eloquently in Scriptural language of our need for a Savior.

Our need for a Savior which the virtue of repentance alerts us to speaks to our relationship with God lacking a certain order or harmony, and thus leads to a consideration of the second virtue to be spoken of here, i.e., the virtue of religion. As a virtue annexed to the cardinal virtue of justice which enables us to give each person what they are due (ST II-II, q. 58.1), Aquinas explains that the virtue of religion consists in paying due honor to God (ST II-II, q. 81.2). Consequently, the effect of this virtue is ultimately to order our loves properly in accordance with the twofold command to love God and neighbor (Mt 22:36-40). For, while it is true that the two can never be separated, it is also true that if our love for God is not primary, our neighbor cannot be loved properly, as we can only truly love our neighbor for the sake of and in unity with God via “the love of God [that] has been poured into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Accordingly, Aquinas writes that the acts of religion are two in kind, those which are directed explicitly to God alone, such as acts of worship, and the acts of all the other virtues, including those done explicitly out of love for neighbor (ST II-II, q. 81.1, ad. 1). In short, as the etymology of the word religion suggests (derived from the Latin religio, meaning to “be bound”, ligare, “again,” re), this virtue enables us to travel through life in such a way so as to strive to be continually united, or bound, to God.  

This, of course, is made possible through the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, Aquinas relates the virtue of religion to the gift of the fear of the Lord (ST II-II, q. 81.2, ad. 1). These elements of the virtue of religion are seen both in the Advent Wreath itself and the blessing accompanying it. With regards to the Wreath, the journey we make through Advent is marked by the lighting of candles. Traditionally, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as the tongues of fire that fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), or the pillar of fire that led the People of Israel through the desert by night in Exodus (Ex 13:21-22). Thus, as we make our way through Advent it is imperative that we pray for the grace to be docile to the Spirit’s action within so that we might become more and more like Christ by growing in his virtues. For, as the Annunciation most beautifully shows, the Spirit of God only moves in one direction and has one effect, toward Christ so as to become more like him. Therefore, our Advent journey moves from Light to Light, the fire of the Holy Spirit binding us to Christ Who is the Light of the World so as to increasingly saturate us with his radiant presence.

We also see the desire for unity with God in the passage from Isaiah in the Advent Wreath Blessing. The prophet pleads with God to send a sign so awfully marvelous that the people would not help but turn back to him and live in accordance with covenantal justice (Is 64:2-4). We find a powerful example of what living in a just relationship with God looks like in the Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent in the figure of John the Baptist. In the Baptist we find a figure who embodies all three virtues spoken of here. First, his entire life is penitential or ascetic, living in the wilderness in the fashion of the Desert Fathers after him, and feeding on “locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6). Accordingly, he calls others to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4), so as to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Savior (Mk 1:3 & Jn 1:23). Throughout this Season of Advent, then, we too must find ways to put the virtue of religion to practice. If we have placed and blessed our Advent Wreath in our home, we have already put this virtue to practice and will do so each time we light its candles. Additionally, we may decide to take up anew or with renewed vigor another of the Church’s practices, such as the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, both of which are intrinsically linked to the life of Christ, deeply Scriptural, and cannot but evoke the sacramental life of the Church toward which they are meant to lead.

The practices of the virtues of repentance and religion should ultimately come together with the exercise and growth in the virtue of reverence. The German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand called reverence “the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes…” (The Art of Living, 3) Within Von Hildebrand’s philosophy, the virtue of reverence is comparable to the function of contemplation in Thomas Merton’s thought as Fr. Aidan has explained in recent posts, opening our eyes to a sacramental vision of the world where all created things from smallest to greatest derive their value by participation in God and are reflective of His presence within (Christian Ethics, 152 & 162). The virtue of reverence therefore keeps us attentive, continually on the watch for God’s activity among us, in every person, in every created thing, in our very own hearts. The passage of the Blessing of an Advent Wreath speaks of the virtue of reverence in its repeated appeal to God as Father (Is 63:16 & 64:7), and in speaking of God as the one who molds us as a potter does clay (Is 64:7).

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent provides us with the exemplar of the virtue of reverence par excellence, Mary. Consideration of the Advent Wreath through a Mariological lens brings three elements into view which leads us to the threefold apex of the meaning of this sacramental practice. The first of these can be seen in the exchange between Mary and the angel, Gabriel, which perfectly exemplifies our Advent journey. To begin, we see that the one who is full of grace is consequently the one who is in full possession of the virtue of reverence, for it is Mary’s utter openness to God’s activity in the world that enables her to hear the call of Gabriel. Moreover, in Mary’s response to Gabriel’s proclamation that she would bear Jesus, who would “be called Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32), she demonstrates that reverence is always accompanied by the virtue of prudence made possible by the gift of wisdom, always searching for the meaning of God’s action in our lives. Our Lady asks, “How can this be, since I have no relation with a man?” (Lk 1:34). Mary’s search for the meaning of God’s desire for her life and how that desire is to be enacted concretely through cooperation with grace is precisely what we ought to ponder during this Season as we await the coming of our Savior. In what ways are we not yet ready to live the vocation given to us by God? Which vices remain that prevent Christ’s full dwelling within us, and what virtues must we implore God to give us so that we might echo Mary’s fiat and cooperate with grace so as to make the life and love of Christ known and present to the world?

These questions are likewise inspired by the symbolism of the Wreath itself. The Mariological lens enables us to see that not only does its symbolic language signify the action of the divine around us, but our own responsive action as members of the Church, Christ’s Body. Through this lens, then, the Wreath is seen as a figure of Mary. Mary, who waits for us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the one who precisely in the fullness of her humanity most perfectly radiates the Light that is Christ to the World. Likewise, the fourth candle ignited reminds us that Mary’s bearing of the Son of God was effected by the complete envelopment of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her (Lk 1:35). The Advent Wreath thus calls us to imitate Mary so that we might imitate Christ. The beauty of the Church’s sacramentals is seen in that if we attend to them in the fashion that has been outlined, however imperfectly and incompletely here, this imitation naturally takes place. This whole process of attending to the symbolism of the Wreath seen most perfectly through this Mariological lens was the action of the virtue of reverence which facilitates the process of divinizing our eyes to see the world anew, continually on the lookout for God’s providential action in the world.

The symbolism of the Blessing of an Advent Wreath likewise culminates in this. As the leader prays the sacramental blessing the text instructs him or her to join their hands, that is, to fold them (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, 75). In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger explains that the folding of our hands in prayer means that we are placing our hands in the hands of Christ, “and with our hands we place in his hands our personal destiny. Trusting in his fidelity, we pledge our fidelity to him” (205). In this seemingly small gesture, then, we symbolically imitate Mary, who in her fiat places her personal destiny in the hands of Christ, allowing him to be Incarnate in her. Analogously, as we travel through the Season of Advent, we seek to reverently attend to the action of God in the world, and through the twofold action of the Spirit and Word in our lives strive to imitate the virtues of Christ, who as “the Savior of every nation” is “the wisdom that teaches and guides us” (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, 75).

Above all, therefore, attention to the Advent Wreath ought to instill within us a deeper longing for unity with Christ, a unity made possible most perfectly this side of eternity in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that, Augustine says, our religion is most perfectly exercised as we are bound again to Christ, and it is likewise in the Eucharist that being so bound we are impregnated with his virtues (City of God, 10.3). Consequently, in a way analogous to Mary, we too bear the Son of God within us, and by participating in his virtue(s), become increasingly enveloped by him who is the Light of the world, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives within us (Gal 2:20). This is the desire of Advent, that Christ may come and consume us, transfiguring the whole of our lives to make it fully his. And so we pray: “Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath. May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring salvation. May he come quickly and not delay” (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, 75).

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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