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Tuesday, February 18, 2020
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A Reflective Christmas

by Larry Rice

holy family1It’s almost a cliché to say that for many people, the holiday season isn’t a happy one. Every year, there are newspaper stories about seasonal affective disorder, Christmas depression, and how to deal with holiday-induced stress. But what if our churches made an effort to reach out to people struggling and feeling out of synch with the traditionally festive Christmas spirit?  Not through another “put Christ back in Christmas” campaign, as laudable as those efforts may be, but a real effort to help people heal. Perhaps churches could embrace the idea of a peaceful, reflective Christmas service.

When I was the director of the Newman Center at Ohio State University, we hosted a more reflective Christmas Mass one Christmas Eve. The idea is simple: instead of the usual “joyful and triumphant” Mass with loud celebratory music, a reflective Christmas celebration features quieter, more serene music. The focus of the liturgy is on welcoming and acceptance, allowing people to bring with them whatever they’re feeling or whatever they’re grieving. In addition, the preaching and the prayers focus on the Incarnation of Christ and his coming into the world as a poor human child, to experience life as we experience it, with all its joys and sorrows. For people who are lonely, grieving a loss, or far from home, a calmer Christmas service allows them to feel at home in church, and accepted with all their struggles. In some places, churches host an early reflective Christmas service on December 21, the longest night of the year. We scheduled ours for Christmas Eve, believing that for people who struggle during the holidays, that’s the night when they feel most apart from everyone else’s sense of celebration.

In fact, this type of Christmas celebration may be closer to the faith-filled but challenging experience that Mary and Joseph had on the very first Christmas night. Mary and Joseph welcomed Jesus into the hardship of poverty, in the cold of winter, without proper shelter, away from friends and family, and with much uncertainty of the future—but what they did have was a simple and enduring trust in the provision of God and his goodness, in front of the mystery of the newborn son who lay before them. The infant Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is likewise perfectly at peace to come to us and dwell with each of us in the midst of our own difficulties. The newborn Emmanuel will come to us in the middle of our brokenness, suffering, loneliness, and loss. As he came to Mary and Joseph in their poverty, so too he will come to us in ours. This is the message of the reflective Christmas Mass. Over the years, I’ve had many people say that the reflective Christmas Mass was the first time they felt at home in church at Christmas time in many years. It’s a concrete way that faith communities can bring reconciliation and peace to the many folks who struggle at Christmas time. It highlights the spiritual significance of Christmas: that God is with us always, even and especially in the difficult parts.

Fr. Larry Rice, CSP, serves as director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas–Austin.

Advent Wreath

advent2The Advent Wreath is a circular garland of evergreen branches representing eternity. On that wreath four candles are typically arranged. During the season of Advent, one candle on the wreath is lit for each Sunday. Each candle repre-sents an aspect of the spiritual preparation for the coming of the Lord.

Set on the branches of the wreath are four candles: three purple and one pink. These candles represent the coming of the light of Christ into the world. The first purple candle, lit on the first Sunday of Advent is typically called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, primarily Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. This candles represents love. Some call it the Bethlehem Candle symbolizing Christ’s manger. On the third Sunday of Advent, the pink candle is lit. It is customarily called the “Shepherd’s Candle” and represents joy. The fourth and last purple can-dle, which is often called the “Angel’s Candle” represents peace, is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. (

Main Advent Candle Colors

These three principal colors of Advent are packed with rich meaning. Enhance your appreciation of the season as you learn what each color symbolizes and how it is used on the Advent Wreath.

Purple or Blue

Purple (or violet) has traditionally been the primary color of Advent, symbolizing repentance and fasting. Purple is also the color of royalty and the sovereignty of Christ, demonstrating anticipation of and reception of the coming King celebrated during Advent.

Today, many churches have begun to use blue instead of purple, as a means of distinguishing Advent from Lent. Others use blue to signify the color of the night sky or the waters of the new creation in Genesis 1.

The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope, is purple. The second, called the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Preparation, is also purple in color.

Likewise, the fourth Advent Candle color is purple. It's called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love.

Pink or Rose

Pink (or rose) is also one of the colors of Advent used during the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday in the Catholic Church. Pink or rose represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration.

The third Advent Wreath Candle, named the Shepherd Candle or Candle of Joy, is pink in color.


White is the color of Advent representing purity and light. Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Savior. He is the light come into a dark and dying world. Also, those who receive Jesus Christ as Savior are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow.

Lastly, the Christ Candle is the fifth Advent Candle, positioned in the center of the wreath. This Advent Candle's color is white.

Spiritually preparing by focusing on the colors of Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas is a great way for Christian families to keep Christ the center of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.

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