By Regis Flaherty
Regis Flaherty is a bestselling author of several books, including Jesus Is the Gift: The Spirituality of Advent & Christmas, which is the fruit of over seven years of preparing others for Advent through talks on its liturgical themes.
A number of traditions are connected with the Advent season. Many of these traditions, while outside of the official liturgy of the Church, enhance the celebration of the season. One of the most popular symbols of this time of preparation is the Advent wreath.
The traditional Advent wreath is a circle of evergreen branches into which are placed four candles: three violet and one rose. Evergreen is a symbol of continuous life. The circular configuration points to the eternity of God, who has no beginning and no end. The flame is a reminder that we await Jesus, who is the Light of the world. The three violet candles correspond to the liturgical vestments of Advent and emphasize the need for repentance and good works to prepare for Christ’s arrival.
The first Sunday, one violet candle is lit and then relit each day of that week; each Sunday after, an additional candle is lit. The progressive lighting heightens the sense of anticipation of the coming of Jesus. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, which is known as Gaudete (“Rejoice!”) Sunday, a time to rejoice that the awaited arrival is near.
Another tradition is the Jesse tree.
Many people enjoy exploring their heritage. It not only helps them understand from where they came, but also gives them a perspective on their present life. That, in part, is the purpose of the Jesse tree.
In many ways the Old Testament shows the “roots” of the coming of Jesus. Catholics are people of the New Testament who have their spiritual heritage in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the unfolding story of preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah, a story that culminates in the coming of Jesus. Knowledge of that story and legacy can help Christians gain perspective on the impact of Jesus in their own lives.
The Jesse tree traces salvation history as worked out through the Old Testament. It may be a real tree, usually an evergreen, or it may be a symbolic tree. In either case, the tree brings to mind the words from Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, the greatest king of Israel. David was an ancestor and prefigurement of Jesus, the ultimate King of Israel and of the world.
On each day of Advent, symbols that represent various biblical characters are placed on this tree. For example, a rainbow symbolizes Noah (Gen 9:13–17), a ladder refers to Jacob (Gen 28:12), and a carpenter’s square recalls Joseph, the foster father of Jesus (Matt 13:55). The symbols are placed on the tree in chronological order starting with Adam. Normally, when the symbol is placed on the tree, the story of the individual is told. Each subsequent individual and story moves closer to the culmination, the birth of Christ.
Because preparation for Christmas so strongly captures the attention of people, both young and old, it is an ideal time to use various customs and traditions to teach the Faith and encourage devotion. Some families use the writing of Christmas cards as a time of praying for friends and family. There are also blessings published by the Catholic bishops of the United States that the family can use when setting up the Christmas tree or crèche.
Implementing these traditions is one way to enter into the season of Advent and prepare our hearts for Christ's coming.
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Jesus is the Gift: The Spirituality of Advent and Christmas explores the biblical characters that the Church presents in these liturgical seasons of grace. Author Regis Flaherty helps the reader to walk in their footsteps—to understand the themes of Advent and Christmas, to prepare for the coming of our Lord, and to embrace His plan for our lives. You’ll find inspiration, opportunity, and impetus to prayer and conversion. This is a great book to help all Catholics prepare for and enter into Advent.