Each year when I get out our Advent wreath, I think about two friends who came to visit our home one Advent some time ago. At that time we were about a week and a half away from Christmas, and we were all sitting around our dining room table talking. The Advent wreath was in the center of the table; we light it each day of Advent during prayers and mealtimes.
During a pause in the conversation, our friend said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure. What would you like to know?" I responded.
"How can you stand burning your Advent candles like that?” he asked.
"What do you mean?" I asked, crinkling my brow and examining the wreath for oddities or flaws.
"All uneven like that,” he said. “They’re all at different lengths. At home, we just burn ours all at once so that they burn down evenly. It looks so much better to us." Then he chuckled, "I guess we just like symmetry in our house."
He was referring to the Catholic tradition of burning the Advent wreath candles one at a time each week, starting with the farthest purple candle. On the first week of Advent, we light the first candle. On the second week, we light the first and second candles. On the third week, we light the first, second, and third candle – a pink one that signals the special joy of the approach of the Savior's birth.
On the fourth week of Advent, all of the candles are lit. The unevenness of the burning is symbolic of our preparation for the coming of Christ in three ways. First, it’s a historical remembrance of the prophecies foretelling the coming of the Messiah. Second, it symbolizes our anticipation of the liturgical celebration of Christmas Day. Third, it’s a reminder of Christ’s coming at the end of the present world.
While I was cleaning up after their visit, I started thinking about our Advent wreath conversation. I have to admit that I was a bit miffed by my friend’s comment. It irritated me to think that someone would throw out a sacred tradition just for the sake of looks. There was just something so... wrong about it. "Why don't they do it the right way?" I haughtily griped.
Then I asked myself, “Well, why do we do it the ‘right’ way?” It seems that our friends had given it considerable thought and decided that burning the candles evenly was more fruitful for them than following the tradition to the letter and being distracted from prayer by the annoyance of having uneven candles on their wreath.
This got me thinking about some of the other traditions that we follow during Advent and Christmas. I'm not in any way suggesting that we throw off tradition, and most certainly, not any of our Catholic doctrine, but I do wonder if sometimes we follow tradition mechanistically without fully understanding and internalizing its significance. If we throw up a tree decorated to the hilt just because we do it every year, what meaning does that have for us? If we give oodles of great gifts but don't know why we are really giving them, then what kind of gifts are they? If we fa-la-la-la-la along with the Christmas carols but never stop to think who it is we are actually singing about, then what's the difference which songs we sing or whether we even sing at all?
Tradition is only tradition because it means something to us.
Maybe this is a good year to reevaluate our Advent traditions. What do they mean – to us, to the Church? Which ones are important to us? Which ones do we do simply because we always do them? Is it time to either change the way we do them or create new traditions that will fill our hearts with longing and the anticipated joy of the coming of the Christ Child.
Whether we light our Advent candles one each week or all at once, our traditions must have meaning for our lives and sustenance for our spiritual journey. When the interior and the exterior of our lives match, then we are truly ready for the Savior.