SALT LAKE CITY — As the outside world circles inward in a dark winter slumber, Catholics await in the darkness for the coming of the light, a yearly cycle depicted by the Advent wreath. The Jesse tree and Nativity scene also anticipate the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise.
The Catholic Church always has used such symbols, said Father Eleazar Silva, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. "It’s a way of having something that refers to something else."
A symbol is an object whose content will put you in touch with the spiritual aspect it represents, he said. For example, "Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God. That means so many things, but then on the other hand he left us with the Twelve. So he established something that is not visible through something that is very, very visible."
In Advent, emptiness and waiting are primary symbols, said Jakob Rinderknecht, who teaches adult religious education and is a member of the RCIA team at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. "The Advent wreath itself has emptiness in it. Emptiness is scary, but it’s what’s going on outside. We’re in the middle of winter and darkness. We’re waiting for light, so waiting is a primary Advent theme."
However, humans aren’t particularly good at waiting, so having activities such as the lighting of Advent candles and placing items on a Jesse tree can help us focus our attention, he said. "We put things in that nothingness that focus us back to what we’re waiting for. Advent has both a historical character – looking back to Christmas – but also an eschatological character – in looking forward to the coming kingdom of God. That’s where some of the emptiness comes from, because some of this preparation has to do with emptying of self, leaving room for Christ’s presence in our midst, leaving room for the light of God to grow in the midst of the darkness."
Advent is celebrated in many different ways throughout the world (see related story this page.) The three main Advent symbols – the wreath, the Jesse tree and the Nativity scene – each come from different cultures, said Fr. Silva. The wreath is a German tradition; the Jesse tree, English; and the manger scene, Italian.
The wreath is a circle, symbolic of something we do each year. The smaller candles mark the four Sundays of Advent, surrounding a large one that represents Jesus Christ. The colors are purple for expectation and pink for joy. "It’s a beautiful way of inserting the whole dynamics of Advent into daily life because we are all souls in cycles, going around, we have certainty and we have hope, we have those big moments and we are always searching for joy," he said.
At Saint Andrew Catholic School in Riverton, Holy Cross Sister Karla McKinnie, the principal, talks with students about other Advent wreath symbology – that the greenery and circle represent the everlasting nature of God’s love and how the candlelight increases as the time of Christ’s birth nears.
The Jesse tree also is wonderful for children, Fr. Silva said, because it gives them visual representation of the covenant made between God and the Old Testament patriarchs that comes to fulfillment in Jesus.
Similarly, the presence of Joseph in Nativity scenes represents God’s promise to David, while Mary is the recipient of that promise.
"The presence of both gives you the whole idea of the Incarnation as history working its way all the way up to the moment in which God comes into the world through Jesus Christ," Fr. Silva said.
Like the center candle of the Advent wreath, the Nativity scene isn’t complete without Jesus. "Jesus gives meaning to the whole thing," Fr. Silva said.
Several saints who have their feasts during Advent reflect the symbolism of the season. Saint Nicholas (Dec. 6), bishop of Myra, was known for his secret gift-giving. Saint Lucy (Dec. 13) was a martyr whose name means light.
"As Americans, it’s hard to look over the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which happens during Advent, which again is a light-in-the-darkness story," Rinderknecht said. "The Immaculate Conception is another one, on Dec. 8. Everything we say about Mary is saying something fundamentally about Christ because Mary is always pointing toward Christ."
Advent symbols help teach the intangibles of the season, Sister Karla said. "Jesus has already come. Kids need to know it’s not just his birthday but it’s a reminder of the whole history of salvation and how we fit into it, and that we’re preparing for the second coming. When they see a symbol it reminds them much more readily than if you were just to talk about it. It focuses them in a tangible way that they don’t have to remember just by hearing."