The Weaving of Moral and Sacramental Theology in the Advent Wreath

While some effort has been expended in bringing the fields of moral theology into productive conversation with those of liturgical and sacramental theology, sustained reflection on the role of the sacraments in the Christian moral life continues to elude moral theologians, generally speaking. With this being the case, it is no surprise that the field of moral theology has not yet considered what role sacramentals (vis-à-vis Sacraments) might play in the Christian moral life. The season of Advent affords us the opportunity to begin changing this in order to make a step forward, however small, through the consideration of the Blessing of an Advent Wreath,[1] and the significance of the wreath’s presence in the home throughout the season of Advent. 

Before delving into specifics, two prefatory considerations on the nature and function of sacramentals are appropriate. First, sacramentals are ordered toward participation in the sacraments, “they prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments and help us to grow to be more like Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1670, cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, §60–61). Second, while the source of the grace of sacramentals is the very same as that of the sacraments, i.e., Christ’s saving Passion and Resurrection, “they differ in nature, efficacy, and intensity.”[2]

This is seen in part in the distinction made as to how the sacramentals confer grace in contrast to the sacraments. Risking something of an oversimplification, the distinction can be drawn in this way. Whereas in the sacraments emphasis falls on the transmission of grace by the very performing of the outward sign (ex opere operato), in the sacramentals greater emphasis is placed on “the devout dispositions” (ex opere operantis) of the faithful employing them through the “power of the Church’s intercession” (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae).[3]

Without suggesting that the virtues play no part in one’s participation in sacramental liturgies, placing greater weight on the “dispositions” of the faithful in the sacramentals in a very real way makes the life of virtue intrinsic to their practice. Consequently, in order to receive the grace on offer in the sacramentals, it is imperative that we seek to understand the full depth of their meaning so that our intention might be more fully conformed to that of the Church in our use of them. This is what will be attempted here by attending to the symbolism of the Advent wreath and the virtues enacted by its use. Specifically, the Advent wreath calls us to cultivate the three virtues of repentance, religion, and reverence as we prepare to meet Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at his Nativity.

The very presence of the Advent wreath in the home speaks to the first virtue to consider, i.e., repentance, or, penance. As an object not present for the majority of the year, the Advent wreath’s appearance is attention-grabbing, making even those who move about the home regularly turn their heads to at least glance at it, and hopefully, gaze upon it. This language of repentance can be found in other elements of the wreath as well. Once our gaze has been turned toward the wreath, we find that at least three of its candles are traditionally colored purple, the same liturgical color used during Lent and worn by priests during the Sacrament of Reconciliation signifying penance. Finally, the circular shape of the wreath also naturally signifies a turning motion.

This element can be related to the function of the virtue of repentance or penance on a more cosmic scale. Drawing from Platonic philosophy, the theology of the great tradition understood all creation to be traveling in an exitus/reditus pattern: all things go out from God as their beginning and return to him as their end.[4] However, for Christians, unlike the Platonists, the way back is not achieved on one’s own, but only through, with, and in the second person of the Trinity, who is Light from Light, true God from true God, and, Augustine would add, virtue from virtue.[5] This movement of increased participation in the light and virtue of Christ as we progress through the weeks of Advent is marked by the lighting of additional candles.

The words of Scripture used during its blessing are joined to the aesthetic language of the wreath. There are two readings that can be used for the blessing, both from the prophet of Isaiah. The first speaks directly of the attention-grabbing aspect of light: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). The passage further clarifies that this light is a child, a son, who is “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5), which Christian exegetes would later understand as a clear prediction of the coming of Christ. For example, St. John introduces him as the light of the world in his prologue and later places the same claim upon the lips of the Savior himself (John 1:4–5, 7–9, 8:12).

However, in the other passage from Isaiah that can be used for this sacramental, the call to enact the virtue of repentance is made more explicit. The passage is itself a lamentation peppered with the language of penance. The prophet cries, “Why do you make us wander, Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we do not fear you?” (Is 63:17). And later confesses on behalf of the people, “Too long have we been like those you do not rule, on whom your name is not invoked . . . we have all become like something unclean, all our just deeds are like polluted rags . . . There are none who call upon your name” (Isa 63:19, 64:5). In speaking this way, the prophet is exemplifying, no less for us today than the people of Israel in his own time, the virtue of repentance or penance.

Years ago, the season of Advent was considered to parallel the season of Lent as a time of preparation and thus as a time of repentance appropriate for acts of penance. Patrick Carey details how during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century priests often preached on repentance and exhorted people to prepare and avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.[6] A good example of this is the preaching of St. John Henry Newman, who, in an Advent sermon, exhorted his listeners with the following: “This in particular is a time for purification of every kind . . . a season for ‘cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, and perfecting holiness in the fear of God’; a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes.”[7] While we do not typically experience this call today, the readings, especially the Gospel readings for the first two Sundays of Advent, retain this theme.

Thus, it remains appropriate that the Advent wreath be for us a reminder and exhortation to intentionally cultivate the virtue of penance during this liturgical season. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that this virtue instills within us “a moderated grief for . . . past sins, with the intention of removing them.”[8] Moreover, for Aquinas, this virtue not only inclines us, but its manifestation constitutes the very matter of the Sacrament of Penance.[9] Consequently, in accordance with its purpose as a sacramental, by calling us to cultivate the virtue of penance, the wreath prepares us for the Sacrament of Penance.

Practically speaking, two things might be done to intentionally cultivate this virtue during this season. First, if we do not already do so, we might make it a special point of making a nightly examination of conscience. A second way to cultivate this virtue in more direct keeping with the season would be to meditate on the various “O Antiphons” of Advent, which come from the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and speak eloquently in biblical language of our need for a Savior.

Because the virtue of penance speaks to our turning back to God, as Aquinas explains, it has a certain temporal priority.[10] That said, Aquinas also notes that the enactment of this virtue is made possible by the infusion of the virtue of charity, and apart from the temporal order, cannot be considered to hold the primacy of place among the moral virtues. In this place Aquinas locates the virtue of religion, another virtue annexed to the cardinal virtue of justice[11] as is the virtue of penance.[12] As a virtue annexed to the cardinal virtue of justice that enables us to give each person their due,[13] the virtue of religion consists in paying due honor to God.[14]

Consequently, the effect of this virtue is ultimately to order our loves properly in accordance with the twofold command to love God and neighbor (Mt 22:36–40). For, while it is true that the two can never be separated, it is also true that if our love for God is not primary, our neighbor cannot be loved properly, as we can only truly love our neighbor for the sake of and in unity with God via “the love of God [that] has been poured into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

Accordingly, Aquinas writes that acts of religion are two in kind, those which are directed explicitly to God alone, such as acts of worship, and the acts of all the other virtues, including those done explicitly out of love for neighbor, which direct the moral life and are directed ultimately to God as their end through their relation with the virtue of religion.[15] In short, as the etymology of the word religion suggests (derived from the Latin religio, meaning “to be bound,” ligare, “again,” re), this virtue enables us to travel through life in such a way so as to strive to be continually united, or bound, to God.  

This, of course, is made possible through the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, Aquinas and John Henry Newman relate the virtue of religion to the gift of the fear of the Lord.[16] These elements of the virtue of religion are seen both in the Advent wreath itself and the blessing accompanying it. With regards to the wreath, the journey we make through Advent is marked by the lighting of candles. Traditionally, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as the tongues of fire that fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), or the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the people of Israel through the desert, which the Fathers often read as symbolizing the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Ex 13:21–22).[17] Thus, as we make our way through Advent it is imperative that we pray for the grace to be docile to the Spirit’s action within so that we might become more and more like Christ by growing in his virtues. For, as the Annunciation most beautifully shows, the Spirit of God only moves in one direction and has one effect in our lives, moving us toward Christ so that we might become more like him. Therefore, our Advent journey moves from Light to Light, the fire of the Holy Spirit binding us to Christ Who is the Light of the World so as to increasingly saturate us with his radiant presence.

We also see the desire for unity with God in the passage from Isaiah in the Advent Wreath Blessing. Aside from confessing the vice and sin of the people, the prophet pleads with God to send a sign so awfully marvelous that the people would not help but turn back to him and live in accordance with covenantal justice (Is 64:2–4). Knowing that to live in communion with God demands a life of holy virtue, the prophet cries: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we might be mindful of you in our ways!” (Is 64:4). We find a powerful example of what living in right relationship with God looks like in the Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent in the figure of John the Baptist.

In the Baptist we find a figure who embodies all three virtues spoken of here. First, his entire life is penitential or ascetic, living in the wilderness in the fashion of the Desert Fathers after him, and feeding on “locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6). Accordingly, he calls others to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) in order to prepare hearts for the coming of the Savior (Mk 1:3; Jn 1:23). Thus, we see both in the Baptist’s life and mission the virtue of religion put into practice, continually living with the aim of being increasingly conformed to Christ, allowing his presence within us to increase and the old vicious elements within us to decrease (Jn 3:30).   

Throughout this Season of Advent, then, we too must find ways to put the virtue of religion to practice. If we have placed and blessed our Advent wreath, we have already put this virtue into practice and will do so each time we light the candles on the wreath. To give this some depth, we may consider praying a prayer for another particular virtue we struggle with each time we light another candle. Or perhaps read the Sunday’s Gospel before it as another candle is lit and sing one or more of the “O Antiphons” of Advent mentioned above to make the occasion more solemn. Alternatively, we may decide to take up anew or with renewed vigor another of the Church’s practices, such as the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, both of which are intrinsically linked to the life of Christ, are deeply scriptural, and cannot but evoke the sacramental life of the Church toward which they are meant to lead.

The practice of the virtues of repentance and religion should ultimately come together with the exercise and growth in the virtue of reverence. The German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand called reverence “the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.”[18] Von Hildebrand goes on to add that “only to the man possessing reverence does the world of religion open itself; only to him will the world as a whole reveal its meaning and value.”[19] Von Hildebrand’s philosophy of value opens up to a theological and sacramental understanding of the world; for him, all created things from smallest to greatest derive their value by participation in God, who is understood as Value Itself, and thus all created values are reflections of him.[20]

Accordingly, the virtue of reverence can be thought to have two primary effects in our lives. First, it frees us from the life of the ego-drama, instilling deep within us the sense that life is not about us, but rather that each of us has a God-given role to play within the theo-drama unfolding within the cosmos. Von Hildebrand explains that the reverent person “does not fill the world with his own ego, but leaves to being the space that it needs in order to unfold itself.”[21] Second, the flip side of this is that the virtue of reverence enables us to grasp the value of all things rightly and respond to them justly. Von Hildebrand writes that reverence is above all

the capacity to grasp values . . . . In reverence the person takes into account the sublimity of the world of values—in it is to be found that upward look toward the world, that respect for the objective and valid demands immanent to the values that, independently of the arbitrary will and wishes of men, call for an adequate response.[22]

The virtue of reverence, therefore, makes us sensitive to the value of each and every created thing in relation to God. Said differently, this virtue keeps us attentive, continually on the watch for God’s activity among us, in every person, in every created thing, in our very own hearts. It is accordingly the fundamental virtue of the human person, enabling us to persistently live out our lives as creatures created in the image and likeness of God and avoid the temptation to revert back into the life of the ego-drama. The passage of the Blessing of an Advent Wreath speaks of the virtue of reverence in two places. First, in its repeated appeal to God as Father in its opening and closing verses (Is 63:16, 64:7). And second, in speaking of God as the one who, precisely as Father, forms us as a potter does clay: “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand” (Is 64:7).

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent provides us with the exemplar of the virtue of reverence, Mary. Consideration of the Advent wreath through a Mariological lens brings three elements into view which leads us to the threefold apex of the meaning of this sacramental practice. The first of these can be seen in the exchange between Mary and the angel, Gabriel, which perfectly exemplifies our Advent journey. To begin, we see that the one who is full of grace is consequently the one who is in full possession of the virtue of reverence, for it is Mary’s utter openness to what von Hildebrand calls the “world of values” that predisposes her to hear the call of Gabriel in the first place.

Moreover, in Mary’s response to Gabriel’s proclamation that she would bear Jesus, who would “be called Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32), she demonstrates that reverence is always accompanied by the virtue of prudence made possible by the gift of wisdom, always searching for the meaning of God’s action in our lives.[23] Our Lady asks, “How can this be, since I have no relation with a man?” (Lk 1:34). Though our position is in a real sense fundamentally different from Mary’s due to the presence of sin in our lives, Mary’s search for the meaning of God’s desire for her life and how that desire is to be enacted concretely through cooperation with grace is precisely what we ought to ponder during this season as we await the coming of our Savior.

What does his coming mean for us personally? In what ways are we not yet ready to live the vocation given to us by God? Which vices remain that prevent Christ’s full dwelling within us, and what virtues must we implore God to give us so that we might echo Mary’s fiat and cooperate with grace so as to make the life and love of Christ known and present to the world?

These questions are likewise inspired by the symbolism of the wreath itself. The Mariological lens enables us to see that not only does the symbolic language signify the action of the divine around us, but our own responsive action as members of the Church, Christ’s Body. Through this lens, then, the wreath is seen as a figure of Mary, who, as a type of the Church, likewise typifies our corporate and individual participatory integration in the life of Christ.[24] This completeness is symbolized by the lighting of the fourth and final candle of the wreath.

Mary, who waits for us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the one who precisely in the fullness of her humanity most perfectly radiates the Light that is Christ to the World. Likewise, the fourth candle ignited reminds us that Mary’s bearing of the Son of God was effected by the complete envelopment of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her (Lk 1:35). In this respect, Mary exemplifies the perfect suppleness to which we ought to aspire so that like her we may be molded by God the Father into the saints he created us to be.

The Advent wreath thus calls us to imitate Mary so that we might imitate Christ. The beauty of the Church’s sacramentals is seen in that if we attend to them in the fashion that has been outlined, however imperfectly and incompletely here, this imitation naturally takes place. This whole process of attending to the symbolism of the wreath seen most perfectly through this Mariological lens was the action of the virtue of reverence which facilitates the process of divinizing our eyes to see the world anew.[25] No more simply as nature but as God’s creation, so fashioned as to function sacramentally, speaking analogously of the life of God and of what it means for us to be in relationship with him.

Thus, the wreath, a naturally occurring element of creation comes to symbolize our journey to Christ, the Son of God, ever ancient, ever new; and the candles made from the wax of bees symbolize that creation was indeed made so as to bear the presence of God through the twofold action of the Word and Spirit, light and fire, a twofold action seen most clearly in the person of Mary. But this action, we have already seen, is made possible by a reverent soul, completely open to the action of God. The symbolism of the Blessing of an Advent wreath likewise culminates in this. As the leader prays the sacramental blessing, the text instructs him or her to join their hands; that is, to fold them.[26]

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger explains that the folding of our hands in prayer means that we are placing our hands in the hands of Christ, “and with our hands we place in his hands our personal destiny. Trusting in his fidelity, we pledge our fidelity to him.”[27] In this seemingly small gesture, then, we symbolically imitate Mary, who in her fiat places her personal destiny in the hands of Christ, allowing Him to be Incarnate in her. Analogously, as we travel through the Season of Advent, we seek to reverently attend to the action of God in the world, and through the twofold action of the Spirit and Word in our lives strive to imitate the virtues of Christ, who as “the Savior of every nation” is “the wisdom that teaches and guides us.”[28]

Thus, above all, attention to the Advent wreath ought to instill within us a deeper longing for unity with Christ, a unity made possible most perfectly on this side of eternity in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that, Augustine says, our religion is most perfectly exercised as we are bound again to Christ, and it is likewise in the Eucharist that being so bound we are impregnated with his virtues.[29]

Consequently, in a way analogous to Mary, we too bear the Son of God within us and by participating in his virtue we become increasingly enveloped by him who is the Light of the world, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives within us (Gal 2:20). This is the desire of Advent, that Christ may come and consume us, transfiguring the whole of our lives to make it fully his. And so we pray: “Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath. May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring salvation. May he come quickly and not delay.”[30]

[1] USCCB Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “Blessing of an Advent Wreath,” in Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2007), 73–75.

[2] The Roman Ritual, Part 2, Part IX: Blessings and Other Sacramentals trans. Philip T Weller (Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co., 1964),

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. q. 1.7, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1981).

[5] Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity, 7.1,1–2,3 & 15.6,9 trans. Edmund Hill O.P (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991). In Augustine’s corpus 1 Cor. 1:24 is always read translated as Christum Dei virtutem et Dei sapientiam, and he consistently defines virtue by this verse throughout his career beginning at least as early as The Catholic Way of Life and the Manichaean Way of Life, 1.16, 26–27, trans. Roland Teske, S.J. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006).

[6] Patrick W. Carey, Confession: Catholics, Repentance, & Forgiveness in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 118–120, 159 & 168.

[7] John Henry Newman, “Worship, A Preparation for Christ’s Coming,” in Parochial & Plain Sermons V (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 965.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, ST. III. q. 85.1.

[9] Ibid., III. q. 84.2.

[10] Ibid., III. q. 85.6.

[11] Ibid., II-II. q. 81.5, ad. 3.

[12] Ibid., III. q. 85.3.

[13] Ibid., II-II. q. 58.1.

[14] Ibid., II-II. q. 81.2.

[15] Ibid., II-II. q. 81.1, ad. 1.

[16] Ibid., II-II. q. 81.2, ad. 1; John Henry Newman, “Shrinking from Christ’s Coming,” in Parochial & Plain Sermons V, 98898–9 & 993–995.

[17] See., e.g., Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity, 2.6,11–7,12 & Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2.121 trans. Abraham Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).  

[18] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living (Steubenville: Hildebrand Press, ), 3.

[20] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1953), 152 & 162.

[21] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, 5.

[23] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief, trans. John M. McDermott, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 26–27.

[24] Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, trans. Michael Mason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 320.

[25] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, 28–29.

[26] USCCB Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “Blessing of an Advent Wreath,” 75.

[27] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 205.

[28] USCCB Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “Blessing of an Advent Wreath,” 75.

[29] Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 10.3, trans. William Babcock (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012).

[30] USCCB Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “Blessing of an Advent Wreath,” 75.