This reflection is part of Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ’s series on the season of Advent. We’ll be posting new reflections each week as we approach Christmas.
I am not sure whether the Advent wreath has made a debut or a comeback. It was never a feature in the Advent liturgies of my childhood. I was an altar boy and I would remember seeing it or lighting the candles. I was always looking for something to do, for it made Mass go more quickly. In fact, the Advent wreath has a very complex history.
Wreaths go back to the Etruscans, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and symbolized all sorts of things from one’s office or status in society, a success or an achievement (the forerunner of the ribbon, medal, or plaque) to a fashion statement.
By medieval times, wreaths had come to be used in three ways: as symbols of the harvest; as the completion of the circle of life at funerals; and as an anticipation of Christ’s coming during Advent. As best as we can make out, in Europe, during dark December, green branches were found and woven together as a promise that spring was on the way, and candles were lit as a metaphor for Christ’s birth, piercing through the darkness of our sin. It may well have had an echo of the ancient relationship between Advent and Lent in that the wreath can also symbolize Jesus’ as yet un-thorned crown.
This largely German ritual was confined to people’s homes. In this regard, the ritual lighting of the candles is also a nice quotation of the ancient Jewish custom of the kindling of the Sabbath candle or, better still, the lighting of the Menorah candles during the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, which, and not by accident, often coincides with our Advent.
The Puritans did not like the pagan origins of the Advent wreath so opposed it, but it persisted and as German Catholics and Lutherans migrated all over the world they took this domestic ritual with them as well. It caught on, and though it is not an official part of the Catholic advent liturgy, it has come to be a legitimate custom. It is a rare cathedral or church that does not now light the Advent wreath.
It’s striking that while harvest rituals and their accompanying wreaths have largely gone, the funeral and advent wreaths remain as strong as ever. During Advent, the wreath entwines both ideas: the completion of our life-long journey; along with the final unveiling, or the apocalypse, of Christ.
Without doubt, the most nagging question confronting Christians, as they contemplate the end of their lives and the end of the world, is what will the next world be like? Let me speculate on what may lie beyond the veil.
Some time ago, Pope Benedict XVI surprised a few people when he suggested that heaven, hell, and purgatory may not be places where we do time, but could be experiences through which we arrive or pass. I think he is right, not only because time and space are elements of this imperfect world, and not the next world, but also because this opens up interesting ideas about what these experiences might be like, and how rich the Catholic tradition is in this regard.
When I think of what the hereafter might be like, I turn by way of analogy to the magnificent parable of God’s mercy in Luke 15:11-24, the Prodigal Son. Here is a Jewish boy who commits two of the worst sins he could commit: he squanders his patriarch’s inheritance and is so down on his luck and would have gladly eaten what the pigs are eating. Then he decides to go home and make up with his Dad. I think that is what death is like for all of us, the final journey. This image is poignantly evoked in the final Holy Communion given to our dying, which is called “viaticum,” which literally means “food for the journey.”
Meanwhile, in the story, the Father watches and waits on the road all day, every day, for any sign of the son’s return. It is worth noting that the father did not go and club the son over the head and haul him home. The son had to put himself on the road home, which is similar to what happens when we die. We begin the final journey home. And when this extraordinary Father sees him, he rushes out, kisses him, and calls for a party, even before the kid has had a chance to finish his well-rehearsed apology. That has to be heaven. For some of us who do our best, though we also fail, we get the basics right and God, who knows our heart and has accompanied us as we have labored under the difficulties with which we have lived, does not even want the apology. We are welcomed home.
For some of us, however, the meeting with God may be personally painful because God takes our free choices very seriously. So when the extraordinary Father sees some of us, he rushes out to meet us, but when we are face to face with love itself, we are aware of the many free and knowing times we have been destructive toward ourselves, others, and our world. At that point, we will be allowed to start and finish the well-rehearsed apology, asking, indeed, in some cases begging, for forgiveness. It will cost us dearly to own what we have done, because it will be so stark, and it will cost God to forgive us. But because the Father is full of mercy and compassion, we will be cleansed, or purged in love. Echoes of this approach are found in Pope Benedict’s words when he met in 2008 with the priests and deacons of Rome during Lent: “Today we are used to thinking: What is sin? God is great, he understands us, so sin does not count, in the end God will be good toward all…. It’s a nice hope. But there is justice, and there is real blame. Those who have destroyed man (sic) and the earth cannot sit immediately at the table of God, together with their victims.”
Finally, I think there may be some of us who will make the journey home. The Father will rush to meet us, but when we are face to face with love itself, we will do what we have freely and knowingly chosen to do all our lives – we will reject God’s love and walk away, the ultimate sin, which no doubt reflects how our lives on earth were spent. That has to be hell—the abyss—to see the face of God; of love itself, and walk away from it because we always have. And the Father painfully respects our choice, even this one to reject him. As the Pope says, “… it is precisely the last judgment of God that guarantees justice…. We must speak specifically of sin as the possibility of destroying oneself, and thus also other parts of the earth.” But like the Pope, I do not think this final group is large. “Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.”
As painful as death and grief are, and the end of time may be, the Advent wreath symbolises both the completion of the cycle of life and our hope in Christ’s reign beyond time and space, where we hope and pray that our parting from those we have loved in this world is not a definitive “goodbye,” but more a “see you later.”
Originally prepared for ‘A Silver Lining’ from the Parish of Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney.
Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of ‘What are we waiting for? Reflections for Advent and Christmas’ https://www.paulinebooks.com.au/product/detail.cgi?id=9780809149063