Lighting the Advent Candles

And More on the Liturgy of the Hours

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ROME, DEC. 6, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My question is whether there is a required order of which candle to be lit in the second week of Advent. Some folks in the liturgical committee said the candle on the right of the first lit candle (going counterclockwise); others said the candle on the left (going clockwise). I know the third week is the rose candle. — D.C., San Jose, California

A: There does not appear to be any prescribed order, either officially or even traditionally, except that the rose-colored candle is lit on the third (Gaudete) Sunday of Advent. The other three candles are customarily violet in color, although the Book of Blessings also allows for four violet or white candles. In Protestant use, four red candles are more common, with the occasional addition of a white candle in the center to represent Christ. In parts of some countries such as Italy and Brazil, four different colors are sometimes used which are lit in order from the darkest to the lightest hue so as to signify the progressive illumination of the world as Christ approaches.

While there appears to be no prescribed order for the first and second candle, it does appear to be a tradition that the order in which they are lit should be maintained. In other words, when the fourth Sunday arrives the candle from the first week is lit first, then the second week, the rose candle follows, and finally the last candle begins to shine. This order should be maintained on each occasion that the candles are lit over the four weeks.

There is quite a lot of discussion regarding the origin of the Advent wreath. Some place its beginnings in pre-Christian Scandinavian customs. Others claim the Middle Ages or 16th-century Lutheranism for its creation. One researcher even proposes that the modern version of the Advent wreath initiated in Hamburg, Germany, in 1839 as a pastoral initiative of Protestant pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881). It slowly spread to other churches, including the Catholic Church, and other countries, reaching the United States in the 1930s.

This latter version is not impossible. A custom, especially an annual one like this one with no official documents mandating its implementation, can appear ancient after about three generations. Apart from North America the use of the Advent wreath is a relative novelty and has spread to some Latin American countries, and even to Italy, only within the last 20 years or so.

Whatever the truth of the origin, the wreath is a symbol that most Christian denominations can share and appreciate.

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is quite beautiful. The circle of the wreath, with no beginning or end and made with evergreens, represents eternity and the everlasting life found in Christ.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent whose progressive lighting expresses the expectation and hope surrounding the coming of the Messiah. There are different systems of considering the four weeks. For example, Week 1 evokes the patriarchs and the virtue of hope. Week 2 recalls the prophets and peace. Week 3 recalls John the Baptist and joy while Week 4 presents the figure of Mary and the virtue of love. If a fifth white candle is used, it naturally represents Christ, light of the world, and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Other systems of representing the weeks are also possible provided they match the liturgical character of the season.

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Follow-up: Obligation of the Liturgy of the Hours

Several readers requested further clarifications regarding the obligation of the Liturgy of the Hours (see Nov. 22). A permanent deacon from Indiana asked what his obligations were.

Canon 276 §2.3 of the Code of Canon Law states that permanent deacons are required to pray that part of the Liturgy of the Hours established by the bishops’ conference. This does not mean that there is any sacramental difference between transitional and permanent deacons. It simply recognizes the fact that most permanent deacons have families and are also engaged in full-time civil occupations which limit their possibilities with respect to praying the full office.

Religious and members of secular institutes who are not clergy might also have an obligation in their statutes to pray all or part of the Liturgy of the Hours. This obligation falls under the general principles for religious rules in which ascetical or disciplinary prescriptions that do not contain divine law or involve the matter of the vows do not oblige under pain of sin. This does not mean that it is indifferent whether a religious fulfills this obligation or not. Willful neglect in fulfilling freely assumed obligations is detrimental to the religious’ spiritual progress in following Christ.

A Michigan reader inquired: «You said it would not be licit for a priest to mentally say the words of the Eucharistic Prayer for it is the official prayer of the Church; does the same apply to the breviary? Many of us who pray the breviary, sometimes, in order not to disturb those around us, pray it to ourselves. Is this licit? Should we at least whisper?»

The norm that mental recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer is insufficient for validity is not just because of its official characteristic. Rather, it touches upon the nature of the sacramental forms themselves as external acts.

While the Liturgy of the Hours is a public prayer, it is not a sacrament. And so while community recitation is preferable it is not now obligatory to whisper or move the lips when praying privately. This may still be done if it helps concentration.

Finally, a Benedictine monk from New Jersey wrote the following series of questions: «It seems to me as though your answers regarding when the Liturgy of the Hours can be omitted are a bit unclear. When a priest/deacon is traveling, especially overseas, would the obligation still hold? Moreover, if a priest/deacon is traveling in a car, especially at night or really does not have time to stop, say, besides for meals, is he still obligated? Or, if a priest has had to say more than one Mass a day, or even several as you theorize along with other duties, even if they be of a social or fun nature, e.g. Rosary Altar Society breakfasts, a visit to a home, a graduation party, or a sporting event for his parish and arrives back much later that evening, etc., can he omit various parts of the LH similar to a situation where the LH is combined with Mass and various parts are omitted anyway? And wouldn’t the celebration of more than one Mass at various times constitute liturgical prayer at different times of day and thereby consecrate that part of the day, especially the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our worship? It seems to me that it only stands to reason that it be permitted to substitute for the LH as it already is on certain days such as Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Christmas. Finally, with the return of the extraordinary form, can other Divine Office books be substituted for the LH, say, a three-volume Divine Office from Collegeville, Minnesota, in English, dating back to the early 1960s?»

I would say that the principle for a clergyman is: Always strive to pray the full office and, as far as possible, organize one’s travel and other obligations around this. Since respecting the hours is less important than praying the office, it is always possible to pray before leaving if one foresees that it will be materially impossible to stop.

The letter we quoted from the Congregation for Divine Worship gave the example of several Masses and other pastoral activities such as hearing confessions or preaching as possible motivations for legitimately omitting a part of the Liturgy of the Hours. It positively excluded recreation as sufficient motivation. It is impossible to predetermine all possible variations of activities, and
so the congregation simply gave a framework so that priests can judge for themselves in good conscience and good faith.

At the same time, the Mass as such does not simply substitute the Liturgy of the Hours even though it is obviously a superior form of prayer. The priest is obliged to recite the office; he has no canonical obligation to celebrate Mass, not even on a Sunday, although the Church highly recommends that he do so daily.

In principle, the obligation remains while traveling overseas, although one can simply follow the Liturgy of the Hours in one’s own country during the trip. While I am not personally enthusiastic about the practice, it is possible to download the texts onto a mobile phone if carrying the book is too complicated.

I would say that one may always use the Divine Office in Latin in either the ordinary or extraordinary forms. One may also use the translations lawfully approved for use by the national bishops’ conference for the ordinary form. A priest may also sometimes pray in a language different from that of his country of residence but always using an approved text. Monks and other religious who have special offices approved by the Holy See use their own texts.

I would therefore suppose that the books mentioned by our reader do not correspond to any version currently approved for liturgical use and therefore would not be usable at the present time.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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