The Four Sundays of Advent

Oct 25, 2019 / Written by: Tonia Long

What is Advent?

Advent is the period marking the four Sundays before Christmas.

First Sunday of Advent | Second Sunday of Advent
Third Sunday of Advent
| Fourth Sunday of Advent

Christmas Calendar

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.


The Advent Wreath

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!

And More:
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.

But there is even more…

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:

First 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.

The Shepherd of Our Souls—The Catholic Church

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

A Statement Issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops November 18, 1966

"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.


As we progress through the spiritual journey of Advent, the second Sunday traditionally symbolizes the virtue of Faith. The second purple candle that is lit on this day is known as the "Bethlehem Candle." Reflecting on the journey of Mary and St. Joseph to Bethlehem during the weeks leading up to the first Christmas is a good way to remain in a spirit of humble reflection and penance.

Dusty Mountain Road

Certainly, even the faith of Mary and St. Joseph must have been put to the test during the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph's ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem.

They were not unaccustomed to traveling on foot, but with Mary’s advanced state of pregnancy, to say that “the going was rough” would be a terrible understatement, bordering on blasphemy. They would have passed through dry, rough terrains, rocky hillsides, desert valleys and perhaps green olive groves, relying on the kindness of strangers to find a place to rest at night.

All this hardship was borne in a spirit of faith, knowing that what had been promised to them would be fulfilled, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. The Child in Mary’s womb would be the Savior of all humanity. The Creator of all the hillsides and valleys through which they passed would soon, so very soon, take His first breath amongst them. Within a matter of days, the entire world would be changed.

"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." Hebrews 11:1

Food For Thought

So how does someone living in the twenty-first century prepare to commemorate such an awe-inspiring, supernatural event? When surrounded by the consumerism that has all but eclipsed the reason for the season, it is easy to be lulled into a sense of indifference. Having heard irritating Christmas jingles over every store’s speakers since just after Halloween, one might even be guilty of wishing that Christmas was “just over with.”

There is something we can do as individual believers both to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas and to fight the secular tide. It is a practice older than Christmas itself, a mandatory observance in centuries past, and a discipline recommended by our Lord himself: We can fast for Advent.

Fasting is a form of penance, which at first glance seems out of step in the season of hope. Yet it is penance that prepares us for the coming of the Savior, who has come to save us from our sins. And He will not save us unless we first repent –acknowledge our sins and our need to be forgiven – and then manifest our repentance through acts of penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Pope Saint Leo the Great (reigned 440-461) — the one who stood up to Attila the Hun — encouraged the faithful in this regard:

"What is more effective than fasting, by which we approach God, and, resisting the devil, we overcome indulgent vices? For fasting has always been food for virtue: chaste thoughts, reasonable desires, and more sound deliberations profit from fasting. And through these voluntary afflictions, our flesh dies to concupiscence and our spirit is renewed for moral excellence."

Benefits of Fasting

Fasting sharpens our efforts at combating sin and acting charitably; thereby helping us resist the temptation of reducing Advent into an extended shopping spree. From fasting, we receive the grace to gaze upon the manger instead of Walmart, the shepherds instead of indecent “super” models, the Magi instead of Macy’s. A consumer-centered Christmas would have us believe that our longings can be satiated with the latest gift item or fashion trend. But fasting’s discomfort reminds us that satisfaction from material goods is fleeting; only God, the source and end of all regular desires, can truly satisfy. As Saint Augustine reminds us, “Our hearts are restless until they rest on You, Lord.”

Mary and Joseph Journeying to Bethlehem

Fasting produces another benefit, and it is one that points to the essence of Advent – longing. When we fast, our bodies clamor for what we have willingly forsaken, be it food, comfort, entertainment, or other goods. As Catholics, we can respond with prayer: “Lord, hasten to fill the emptiness within me this Christmas, as I know only you can fully satisfy the longings of my soul.” With an empty stomach and an expectant heart, the age-old prayer of Israel – O come, O come, Emmanuel –rings with new meaning.

Fasting is more necessary than ever, for we live in times where instant gratification reigns supreme; where a great number of human beings are encouraged to enslave themselves to a gadget, a vice or worse. Fasting helps gain back a degree of control in our lives, which is real freedom.

As You Light the Second Candle...

2nd Candle lit

On the Second Sunday of Advent, with your loved ones, or the memory of your loved ones, gathered with you around the Advent Wreath, it is now time to continue the age-old tradition of lighting the second purple candle along with the first.

A prayer of your choice may accompany this lighting, or continue the prayer provided in the First Sunday of Advent:

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

Add the following invocation:

Second week:

O King of all nations, Jesus Christ,
Only joy of every heart,
Come and save your people.

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


They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. Isaiah 35:10 (NIV)

By the third Sunday of Advent we are most of the way through this season of preparation. Right away we notice a distinct difference in our external celebrations: the colors have changed from purple to pink. The priests’ vestments and the third candle on every Advent wreath are now pink.

Why Pink—and what does it have to do with Gaudete?

Angels announcing the arrival of baby Jesus

The color pink has long been associated with joy and festivity. Joy is symbolized with the lighting of the pink candle, reminding us of the joy the world experienced at the coming birth of the Savior of the World.

This candle has also been referred to as the “Shepherds’ Candle” as we collectively imagine what incredible joy these humble peasants must have felt when they were heralded by the angels with “Gloria in Excelsius Deo!”

Thus it is appropriate in the midst of prayer and penance to rejoice as we see the goal of the season approaching: “The Lord is nigh.”

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men. The Lord is nigh." Philippians 4:4-5

This is a quotation from Philippians 4:4-5, and in Latin, the first word of the antiphon is gaudete (Latin, “rejoice”). Since the first word of this entrance antiphon is “Gaudete,” the third Sunday of Advent has been known traditionally as Gaudete Sunday.

With only one more Sunday before Christmas, our preparations, spiritual and temporal, take on a more eager and urgent sense of anticipation. The pink vestments and a pink candle for the Advent wreath help heighten this emphasis. It is not surprising that the verbs "sing" and "rejoice" are heard over and over in the Holy Scripture for this Sunday.

The God Who gives joy to my youth

(ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam)

No one does “joy” like children. So this would be a good time to turn their attention to the greatest Gift of all this Christmas, Jesus.

Children singing Christmas Carols

Whether you have children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, of your own, or can lead a children’s group at your church or local library, Advent is the perfect time to bring their focus back to the real Reason for the Season.

Just reading a well-illustrated story of the birth of Christ in a public place can be a true proclamation of your faith. Add to that the singing of Advent hymns that use the names of Jesus and Mary and you have a bone fide cultural counter-revolution!

Just a few suggestions:

*Take the kids outside to decorate your lawn and home with a focus on the Nativity.

*Be sure to set the example by ALWAYS wishing others a “Merry Christmas.” Let’s make “Happy Holidays” nothing more than a passing fad.

*Use proper Christmas cards with the Nativity theme – Click here for Free Catholic Christmas Cards to download and print.

*Here are some beautiful traditional Christmas songs for you to learn and sing with family and friends:

*PLUS here are some links to various Christ-centered Christmas tales to share with young and old alike:

Some Final Thoughts

Saint Paul urged the Philippians to be joyful because “The Lord is near.” That very presence of God ought to be our focus, because that would help us with the other things that need changing in our personal lives and in the world.

What would bring us joy today? An end to abortion? Certainly! Conversion in our homes and communities? A new spirit of devotion and solemnity in the liturgy? Definitely. Truly, the greatest joy in our epoch would be that Our Blessed Mother would truly become the Queen of all hearts, the fulfillment of Our Lady of Fatima’s promise that, “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Let us participate with a confident joy in that promise, especially this Gaudete Sunday, knowing that as God’s promise of a Savior was once fulfilled two millennia ago, so will the Reign of Mary come to be!

Prayer for lighting the Third Advent Candle

Before lighting the candle, pray—

3rd Candle lit

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

Add the following invocation:

Third Week:

O Key of David, Jesus Christ,
The gates of heaven open at your command,
Come and let your people free.

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


Read: Seeking the True Joy of Christmas - A short and beautiful meditation on finding Joy even in the midst of trails, especially at Christmas.


"O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments, and how unsearchable his ways!" Romans 11:33

Let us begin the Fourth Sunday of Advent by reflecting on Saint Paul’s exclamation to the Romans quoted above. Truly, God’s ways are beyond our tragically flawed, human understanding. Certainly, God could have preserved the kingdom of Judah, making it possible for the Messiah, the son of David, to be born in the royal palace in Jerusalem. It would be natural and we would almost say, more fitting the dignity of the Messiah.

The Holy Family

Instead, God allowed the kingly line, and the throne of Judah, to disappear. And then, against all human reason, He chose a humble carpenter of Nazareth—a true descendant of David but a lowly one—to be the foster-father of His Divine Son. But God's ways are not our ways. It is not by their social standing, wealth or power that God values men. Purity and virtue are the attributes that He seeks in His human instruments. In God's eyes, no king sat on the throne of Judah, not even David himself, who was more acceptable to God as foster-father for His Son, than Saint Joseph.

This is the last Sunday of our preparation for Christmas, the anniversary of Christ's birth. Like Joseph, we can all feel unworthy of the honor of welcoming Him into our hearts and our homes. We are indeed unworthy, not because we have little of this world's goods, but because we have so little humility, so little charity, so little faith and trust in God's goodness. Let us try to imitate Joseph and Mary, the humblest of the humble, the purest of the pure, and the greatest believers in God's goodness and mercy. We can never hope to equal them, but we can follow them humbly. By obediently praying the Rosary, as Our Lady asked at Fatima over 100 years ago, we may all grow closer to the Holy Family.

The best way for us to prepare for Christmas is to believe that, in spite of all what we see happening in the world and in the Church today, Christian Civilization will indeed flourish and bloom again like never before.

The Last Purple Candle

Whereas the purple color of the first two Advent candles drew our thoughts in the direction of penance and fasting, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, with the imminent approach of our King, Jesus Christ, the final purple candle represents royalty.

The color purple has been associated with royalty, power and wealth for millennia. Purple's elite status stems from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. Purple fabric used to be so expensive that only rulers and kings could afford it.

Unfortunately, the theme of “royalty” or “majesty” presents a problem in our modern age. As independent Americans, we have been raised to be somewhat distrustful of and feel intimidated by the idea of kings and queens. Aren’t they the ones who take advantage of the weak and oppress their subjects? No, not in a Catholic context—far from it! Did not Our Lord Himself teach us to pray, “Thy KINGDOM come”?

We ought not be fearful of our King, Who rules in compassion and justice. Professor Plinio Correa de Oliveira, a twentieth century Catholic devotee of Our Lady of Fatima, understood this truth in a most profound and personal way. Wishing to show fellow Catholics the kind solicitude of our heavenly King, Plinio wrote the following meditation:

"Imagine the Baby Jesus immensely approachable. This King, so full of majesty, at a certain moment opens His eyes to us. We notice right away that His most pure, highly intelligent and penetrating gaze meets ours. He immediately sees the deepest of our faults, but also the best of our qualities…

And when we least expect it, by a kind entreaty of Our Lady, He smiles. Despite all His majesty, with that smile we feel the distance disappear, forgiveness invades our soul, and we are drawn to Him; and thus drawn, we walk up to stay with Him. We have determined that we will never leave the Child God’s side. The Divine Child affectionately embraces us and pronounces our name, in the most clear and loving tones to ever fall upon our ears..."

A Christmas Meditation
For a FREE downloadable pdf of the above prayer card, please click on the image.

Prayer for lighting the Fourth Advent Candle

Four Candles Before lighting the candle, pray—

4th Candle lit

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

Add the following invocation:

Fourth Week:

O Wisdom, holy Word of God, Jesus Christ,
all things are in your hands,
come and show us the way to salvation.

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


—taken from Manual for a Christian Life by Morgan Dix (1889)

Lo! He comes in clouds descending,
Once on earth for sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train, Hallelujah!

Christ the King

Jesus comes on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him,
Robed in dreadful majesty:
Those who set at nought and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of His passion,
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
Still with rapture,
Gaze they on those glorious scars.

See Redemption, long expected,
Now in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by men rejected,
Rise to meet Him in the air; Hallelujah!
See the Son of God appear.

Yea, Amen! Let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne!
Savior, take Thy power and glory,
Claim the Kingdoms for Thine own!
O come quickly! Hallelujah! Amen