Have you ever wondered why the third candle in the advent wreath is pink?
Why the third Sunday?
The short answer is joy!
But the long answer is fascinating, and it has something to do with Lent, and something to do with an early Gnostic movement that dismissed Jesus as a real human person.
Most Important Holiday
Christmas or Easter?
In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christmas was not even on the calendar!
The most important date on the calendar was Easter, the day the Lord rose from the dead. Forty days, in honor of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, were set aside to fast and pray as Jesus did, and to do something to show repentance of sin, in preparation for that glorious day when Christ’s victory over sin and death is commemorated.
But a real problem had been slowly seeping into the community of faith. The Gnostic movement, which had been gaining steady traction among believers, held that the essence of Jesus was Spirit, and that either Jesus never actually died, or Jesus had never actually been a human being. So, somewhere around the third century, Christians began to celebrate Jesus’ birth as well as His death, resurrection, and ascension, because Jesus was a real person, Who had really been born, lived, died and was bodily resurrected.
But no one knew exactly when Jesus had been born.
Eventually, the church landed on December 25.
- Maybe because it had already been a huge holy day that had been celebrated for thousands of years, when people feasted and exchanged gifts in honor of the winter solstice, celebrating the night the Great Mother Goddess gives birth to the baby Sun God. Variations of this myth are found throughout the world, including Egypt, India, the Middle East, lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, the Celtic lands in Europe, Scandinavia, and in northern Africa.
Early Christians began to give this festival a new meaning—to celebrate the birth of the Son of God ‘the unconquered Son’ and the ‘Son of Righteousness,’ the true fulfillment of all these other stories.
- Or, maybe, after establishing the day of Jesus’ crucifixion in connection with Passover—March 25—Jesus’ conception and birth were also extrapolated–December 25.
Lent’s Counterpart: Advent
By the early fifth century, Advent services started showing up as a counterpart to Lent, and the observance of Advent also lasted about forty days. Advent, as with Lent, was the season when Christians were to wait in the “darkness” of sin with hopeful expectation for promised redemption, just as the whole world waited expectantly for the birth of Messiah—remembering the magi from the east.
At first, people were to fast three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as do some act to show repentance for sin and pray. It was also a time of instruction and self-reflection, in preparation to be baptized in the New Year.
Eventually, in the ninth century, the forty days of Advent began to be reduced, until by the medieval era, Advent became a four-week period of preparation.
First Advent, or Second Advent?
Interestingly, for centuries the “coming” that was celebrated was less about the birth of Jesus, and more about Jesus’ Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to specifically prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. And even then, this newer sense of the baby Jesus’ “advent” or coming—that we celebrate today—did not replace the older sense, the Second Coming.
For the first two weeks of Advent, the Church would reflect on the Second Coming. People would confess sins, thinking about their unworthiness, and spend time hoping for the quick coming of the Lord.
The last two weeks of Advent would then transition to focus on Jesus’ first coming, Christ in the manger.
Purple and Pink, Not Red and Green
For the church, purple and rose, not red and green, are the Christmas season’s colors. That is why the candles in the Advent wreath are traditionally purple (or blue) and pink.
Purple is used to signify a time of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice as well as royalty for Jesus, King of kings.
Rose signifies joy in both the first Advent, and in anticipation of the Second Advent.
Each of the Advent wreath’s candle is to represent 1,000 years.
Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the world’s Savior—from Adam and Eve to Jesus, the traditional reckoning of the passage of time represented in scriptures.
There are a variety of ways the symbolism of the candles has been taught.
For the three purple or blue candles:
- The First Sunday of Advent can symbolize Hope with the “Prophet’s Candle,” reminding us that Jesus is coming. Christian hope is not based upon wishful thinking, but rather upon a sure and steady confidence that God’s promises are always kept.
- The Second Sunday of Advent can symbolize Peace with the “Angel’s Candle,” reminding us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Humanity.” The believer’s internal experience of peace comes not from outward circumstances, but rather from a steadfast mind that is anchored in trust in God.
- The Fourth Sunday of Advent can symbolize Faith or Love with the “Bethlehem Candle,” reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Though faith is important, this fourth candle more often represents love, the overflowing love of God for the earth, for all creation, and most poignantly, for us.
And that brings us to the one pink candle:
The Third Sunday of Advent always symbolizes Joy with the “Shepherd’s Candle,” reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the coming birth of Jesus. You may have heard it called Gaudete Sunday, so-called because of the liturgy that grew up around the Advent services. The introit, which was always sung in Latin, for this third Sunday begins, ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete’ meaning ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice,’ quoting the apostle Paul.
Interrupted by Joy
The third Sunday was a respite from all the fasting and penitence and somberness as it acted as a transition to rejoicing in anticipation of Jesus’ first coming.
Some people call it “Stir Up” Sunday based on the Collect of the Day:
“Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end.
“Amen.”Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent