Advent Wreaths and Penitential Rites

And More on Theology of Liturgies

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ROME, NOV. 27, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am hesitant to layer the introductory rites of the Mass during Advent with more words; the Church omits the Gloria during Advent to remind us of the season’s simplicity and even its penitential character. However, the Advent wreath has become an important symbol in many parishes. For the lighting of the candles to be featured at one weekend Mass but not the others would make little sense to the people, since they don’t attend more than one weekend Mass. I have resolved the situation by having an acolyte or server light the candles during the Penitential Act. We use the third form, and for the first three Sundays we use the first option: «You came to gather the nations ….» On the last Sunday, and on Christmas, we use the second option, «Lord Jesus, you are mighty God and Prince of peace ….» Thus, something is being sung or said, and the lighting is not simply perfunctory. On weekdays, the candles are lighted before Mass. Any comment? — T.D., Western Australia

A: These comments were originally spurred by a follow-up article from Dec. 20, 2011, in which I wrote: «From a liturgical point of view, only the blessing of the wreath on the first Sunday of Advent is included among those that may be used at Mass. This rite has received the approval of the Holy See for those countries that requested its inclusion in their translation and adaptation of the Book of Blessings. It is not found in the original Latin benedictional.

«The multitude of other rites and ceremonies that have grown up around the lighting of the wreath are mostly geared to family celebrations. These may be profitably used in church but outside of Mass. For example, it is possible to organize a prayer service before the Saturday evening Mass.

«If, however, there is no ceremony outside of Mass to light the candles on Sundays 2, 3 and 4 of Advent, I think that it is legitimate for the priest to do so at the very beginning of the first Mass of the corresponding Sunday (or Saturday evening) with no added rituals or texts. For example, after genuflecting toward the tabernacle or bowing toward the altar, the celebrant could simply light a taper from an earlier candle and, saying nothing, use this to light the next candle. He could then go to kiss the altar and continue Mass as normal. The sacristan would light the wreath candles before the celebration of later Masses.»

While I would agree with our reader that the role of the Advent wreath has become more important, it is still only one non-liturgical symbol and its importance should not be exaggerated. The Advent liturgy is itself sufficient to provide all the necessary teaching material so as to prepare for Christmas.

With respect to my earlier reply I see no great difficulty in lighting the candle at the beginning of each Sunday Mass in the simple manner I described.

I would balk, however, at mixing it with the Penitential Act in the manner described by our reader. Four reasons come to mind.

First, general liturgical principles do not allow anyone, on his own authority, to add or remove anything from the sacred rites.

Second, this proposal removes the necessary freedom of the celebrant to use any other form of the penitential rite and thus subjects the liturgy to the needs of a devotional practice.

Third, I doubt that combining the lighting of the candle with the penitential rite sends the right message. The admission of our sinfulness is an important part of every Mass, as we prepare our souls to live the sacred mysteries. Combining it with the lighting of the candle quite likely would distract from this primary meaning toward various other messages that are best reserved for other moments.

Finally the Advent wreath itself has various shades of meaning and is not essentially penitential in character. 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.

These other nuances could be lost by associating it too closely to the penitential rite.

I am certain of our reader’s good faith and his desire to obtain the best pastoral benefit from this devotional act. However, I remain unconvinced that this proposal is a viable pastoral action and in full conformity with liturgical norms.

* * *

Follow-up: Theology of Latin- and Eastern-Rite Liturgies

In the wake of our comments on the different theological stresses in the liturgies of East and West (see Nov. 13), a reader commented: «I appreciated your response regarding the different emphases in theology in Latin- and Eastern-rite liturgies. As a (Latin-rite) teen I also found a Byzantine-rite church a few blocks from home, and loved how I could go to either rite, and became familiar with both. Your quote of an Eastern epiclesis included ‘and upon us,’ and perhaps that was the basis of the new Eucharistic Prayers having a ‘dual epiclesis’ before and after the institution. But I think, in a subtle way, that is also in the Roman Canon, expressed in gesture: Before the consecration the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and wine, and after, at the words ‘ut quotquot ex hac altaris participatione … omni benedictione et gratia repleantur,’ he (and everyone if they wish) make the sign of the cross on themselves. The invocation of the Spirit is implied, though not expressed in the words. It would again show a difference in emphasis and expression, not in substance. Do you think my theory has any validity?»

It was commonly alleged among Latin-rite theologians that although the Roman Canon had no explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit, it had in fact not one but two epicleses, before and after the consecration.

This was among the reasons why the Holy See stipulated to the commissions composing the new Eucharistic Prayers that they should all have two epicleses, or invocations of the Holy Spirit. One asks for the consecration and the second for communion and unity among the faithful as a fruit of the celebration.

In the Roman Canon the epiclesis was adduced more from the text than from the gestures made by the priest, since these gestures had suffered several modifications over the centuries.

Thus the first epiclesis would be the «Quam oblationem»: «Be pleased, O God we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.» These words are now accompanied by the gesture of invoking the Holy Spirit by the priest’s extending both hands over the gifts. In the extraordinary form, however, the gestures at this moment are five signs of the cross.

The second epiclesis in the Roman Canon would be, as our reader posits, the prayer «Supplices te rogamus»: «In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.»

Once more it is the petition that of blessing from on high, rather than the priest’s gesture, that would constitute the epiclesis.

* * *

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 quest
ions that arrive.

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