The Four Sundays of Advent

Advent is the period marking the four Sundays before Christmas. 

Christmas Calendar

By Tonia Long at America Needs Fatima:

So, first, let’s get our dates straight. Advent begins on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30th) and ends on December 24th. Christmas begins on December 25 and continues through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day).

Advent, from the Latin adventus, means coming or arrival. In ancient Rome, Adventus was a technical term for the “glorious entry” of an emperor into his capital city. In addition to celebrating conquest on the battlefield, the birthday of the royal leader was also commemorated in an Adventus.

Advent then is a most fitting word to describe the period leading up to Christmas; what we celebrate is the coming of our King and Emperor, one who is both fully man and fully God. The Church drives this point home for us in setting the Feast of Christ the King right before the start of Advent. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays of Advent, and the weeks between them, to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.



Advent Wreath - 1st Candle Lit

One of the most familiar external signs of Advent is the Advent Wreath. Advent candles readily demonstrate the strong contrast between darkness and light, which is an important biblical image. Jesus referred to himself as the “Light of the World” that dispels the darkness of sin: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). 

It also reminds us that, as Christians, we’re meant to shine the light of Christ in this world. As Jesus tells us: You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

So Much Symbolism!


The circular shape of the wreath, without beginning or end, symbolizes God’s eternity. God has no beginning and no end. It also symbolizes His unending love for us—a love that sent his Son into the world to redeem us from the curse of sin. Furthermore, it represents eternal life which becomes ours through faith in Jesus Christ.


The Advent Wreath traditionally holds four candles which are lit, one at a time, on each of the four Sundays of the Advent season. Each candle represents 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, whose birth was foretold in the Old Testament. Some Advent wreath traditions also include a fifth white “Christ” candle, symbolizing purity, that is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Many circular wreaths can incorporate a white candle by adding a pillar candle to the wreath’s center.


Purple is a liturgical color that is used to signify a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice and is used during both Advent and Lent. Advent, also called “little Lent,” is the season where we spiritually wait in our “darkness” with hopeful expectation for our promised redemption, just as the whole world did before Christ’s birth, and just as the whole world does now as we eagerly await his promised return. We can literally feel the room illuminate as we progress through this season of spiritual preparation!

Two boys lighting the first purple candle on an advent wreath

The use of evergreens reminds us of our eternal life with Christ; pointy holly leaves and red berries represent the crown of thorns from the Passion of Jesus and His Precious Blood; and pine cones symbolize Christ’s Resurrection.


Not only is the Advent Wreath itself replete with symbolism and meaning, but each of the Sundays carry a theme all its own. In this article, we will explore the first Sunday of Advent and watch as the entire Christmas story unfolds for us each and every year—if we are paying attention.

Toward this end, we will explore the three “helpers” to an advantageous Advent—penance, fasting and prayer. Included in this will be a clear explanation of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the necessity of this counter-cultural approach to preparing for the birth of Our Savior.

Lighting the First Advent Candle

1st Candle

We embark on our Advent journey as we light the first purple candle. If there are children in the house, you can feel the excitement mount as they clamor to see who gets to light it! As the first candle is lit, the following prayer may be said by a leader or all gathered:

Before lighting the candle, pray—

O God, Rejoicing, we remember the promise of your Son. As the light from this candle, may the blessing of Christ come upon us, Brightening our way and guiding us by His truth.

May Christ our Savior bring life into the darkness of our world,
And to us as we wait for His coming. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen

Adding the following invocation according to week:


O Emmanuel, Jesus Christ,
Desire of every nation,
Savior of all peoples,
Come and dwell among us.

Prayers for lighting the Advent Wreath Candles, click here to download and print!

This candle has traditionally been referred to as “Prophet’s Candle” reminding us that Jesus is coming. The theological virtue of HOPE is at the center of the first week of Advent. This is the virtue practiced by the prophets and the entire Jewish race for 4,000 years, as they waited in expectation for the promised Savior. And it is the virtue each Christian must practice throughout his or her lifetime and is so well defined in the Act of Hope: “…I hope to obtain forgiveness of my sins, the help of Thy grace and life everlasting.”

Hope’s “helper” — Penance

Throughout the ages the Catholic Church has encouraged us to do penance in anticipation of Christ’s coming. As sinners, we all know instinctively that we need to do penance for our sins and once these are performed, we are again filled with hope in the promise of salvation.

“Advent is also a season of penance — we don’t think of that, but that’s why the color is violet because it is a season of penance and preparation,” said Fr. Kleczewski, from the diocese of Phoenix, AZ. “Advent is also a recognition of kind of our distance from God, still more a season of anticipation and rejoicing but there’s a penitential nature to it.”

To live out the penitential spirit of Advent, Fr. Kleczewski offered several tips. In addition to going to confession during the season, like they do during Lent, Catholics can give something up, take on extra prayer, or perform acts of charity, such as participating in a parish “Angel Tree” program where parishioners buy presents for a child in need.

Fr. Kleczewski compared the expectation of Advent and Christmas to a child waiting for a parent to come home. “We’re waiting, and we’re waiting, and we’re waiting for them to come home — we can’t wait for them to come home. Well that’s what Advent’s about — it’s about that waiting and building of the longing, again both for the coming kingdom, but also for the celebration of the birth of Christ,” he said.

Hope is that virtue we practice to fuel and sustain our waiting.


Let’s face it—to talk about penance in the month of December, when everyone is rushing around eagerly buying gifts, is pretty counter-cultural. But so is obedience to a higher authority and it is this authority – the Catholic Church – to which we now turn.

Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence


“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…. If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8-10).

  • Thus Sacred Scriptures declare our guilt to be universal; hence the universal obligation to that repentance which Peter, in his sermon on Pentecost, declared necessary for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38). Hence, too, the Church’s constant recognition that all the faithful are required by divine law to do penance. As from the fact of sin we Christians can claim no exception, so from the obligation to penance we can seek no exemption.
  • Forms and seasons of penance vary from time to time and from people to people. But the need for conversion and salvation is unchanging, as is the necessity that, confessing our sinfulness, we perform, personally and in community, acts of penance in pledge of our inward penitence and conversion.
  • For these reasons, Christian peoples, members of a Church that is at once holy, penitent, and always in process of renewal, have from the beginning observed seasons and days of penance. They have done so by community penitential observances as well as by personal acts of self-denial; they have imitated the example of the spotless Son of God Himself, concerning Whom the Sacred Scriptures tell us that He went into the desert to fast and to pray for forty days (Mk 1:13). Thus Christ gave the example to which Paul appealed in teaching us how we, too, must come to the mature measures of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).
  • Of the many penitential seasons which at one time or another have entered the liturgical calendar of Christians (who on this point have preserved the holy tradition of their Hebrew spiritual ancestors), three have particularly survived to our times: Advent, Lent, and the vigils of certain feasts.


  • Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had.
  • Zealous Catholics have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity.
  • For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference, call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished.
  • If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived.
  • A rich literature concerning family and community liturgical observances appropriate to Advent has fortunately developed in recent years. We urge instruction based upon it, counting on the liturgical renewal of ourselves and our people to provide for our spiritual obligations with respect to this season.
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