St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Friday, November 26, 2021
Preparing to Prepare
The last days before Advent. Do you have an Advent wreath ready yet? You don’t actually “have” to; It wasn’t even a tradition in the mostly Irish Catholic church in America, and certainly not anywhere else, before the liturgical reform movement when the German Benedictine liturgical traditions entered American Catholicism and then the whole American church, including, now most of Protestantism as well.
And it can be one of those simple, home-ly rituals that children do love – and that as adults they remember. If you do use it – let it “mean” something.
This is what Dr. Therese Mueller, a German immigrant sociologist – and the mother of Gertrud Nelson (To Dance With God) wrote in her wonderful little booklet, Our Children’s Year of Grace in 1943:
“With the beginning of a new year of grace, we parents face the responsibility of keeping our children in close touch with Mother Church, for she shows us the way to a fuller understanding of the sacred mysteries of our religion, wisely represented and celebrated in the course of the liturgical seasons.
Then let us use in the “mother school” or “home school” everything that helps our children to understand and to penetrate deeper into their faith. There must be no exclusion of the little ones, for they are still so near to the wisdom of paradise that they often express things in simple ways more clearly than we do with many words…
On the Saturday evening before the first Sunday of Advent we wind a wreath of evergreen, pine boughs, cedar branches, or holly, large enough to hold four red candles, equally spaced, and suspend it with four red ribbons tied on the spaces between the candles. We prepare the branches, cut them to the desired length, attach the candles to a piece of round wire or reed, and then do the winding and finishing in the living room, while we talk to the children about the meaning of the symbol: the circle represents the unceasing flow of sun years or the sun itself following its prescribed course; the candles divide it into time, which we can measure and count – four of them for the thousands of years of waiting for the arrival of the Savior, remembered on the four Sundays of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, the birth of Christ. They represent also thousands of years mankind is waiting for his second and final coming – called by Christ himself, – “a little while.” The finished wreath we hand in the living room at a suitable place, where it can be seen by all.
Then we open our missal and study the text of the Mass for the first Sunday of Advent[It is easy for us to share the readings for each week with our children also, because they are always printed and discussed in the newsletters before Sunday CSC+]And we reflect on the fact that the season of Advent means more than the birthday of the child of Bethlehem, more than just a sentimental remembrance. For the King of eternity is beginning his work of salvation by becoming man, and by dying on the cross; and continuing it by being with us every day – yet fulfilling it not earlier than the last day of time, when he re-arrives as God and man on the clouds of heaven, as lightning appearing from the east to the west, with great power and majesty…
On Sunday evening under the light of the wreath we recall all that was studied and worked over the night before, the Collect and the leading thoughts of the Epistle and the Gospel. We sing our Advent hymns, and especially the Rorate Coeli , which after some practice will become an essential part of our family prayers. “
A story about the Advent wreath
When Maria Von Trapp arrived in the USA as a refugee from the Nazis in 1938, she and her family were astonished that “nobody knew anything about the Advent wreath. “The Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Martin Hellrigel of St Louis, a leader in the liturgical movement, had also been born in Germany. Coincidentally, Gertrud’s family had also fled Hitler in 1938, and settled in St Louis. He soon met Therese Mueller, who reminded him of his own German childhood and the need to introduce “home” liturgy to the Catholic Church in the USA. He encouraged her to write, and she encouraged him as well. He decided to bring the home-ly Advent wreath into the Church, and because he loved the liturgical colors and vestments: three purple and a pink one for the third Sunday (Gaudete – “rejoice!”) of Advent. Therese didn’t much like that, but gracious as she was, she went along with it for the sake of making those customs and traditions better know across the Church.
Her little booklet, Our Children’s Year of Grace, and her many articles influenced the American church far more than even clergy know! Even Maria Von Trapp, when she wrote her book about her family, Around the Year with the Trapp Family, interviewed Therese to make sure she was getting it “right!”(If you think the Muellers knew “everyone” – you would be right – even my other heroine, Dorothy Day!)
Since then, some people across the Church as if it has “always” been part of the Church’s Advent preparation, having short memories! That’s how effective she was. More recently, different groups have marketed the Advent wreath with very specific “meanings” or themes for each candle and each week, some sure that the pink should be the last Sunday – for Mary – and each group eager to sell you materials specific to their interpretation! Some use all white, some red, some purple and pink, some blue -Most recently, many others have added a white candle in the center of the wreath for Christ – totally unnecessary, as all the candles and lights of Christmas signify the Light that is Christ Jesus!
Fact. The color doesn’t matter. Use what you have, or what you like.
Advent is meant to be a restful season – a time of spiritual waiting, a spiritual “pregnancy” – NOT a time of pressure to “get it right!”
Here’s a wonderful illustration for this dark winter season – let it be simple and peaceful. Let whatever lights you kindle, of whatever color, lead you to Light