By G. Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
The fourth advent candle is the last one lit in most advent wreaths, marking the last phase of the advent season. It has perhaps the most sentimental meaning of all the advent candles, a meaning that is often seen as just a cliché. However, that candle’s meaning is unexpectedly powerful.
What Does the Fourth Advent Candle Stand for?
While Advent wreaths as we know them have been around for nearly 200 years, the tradition of celebrating advent goes back much further. As a result, advent wreath designs and the number of advent candles vary across the world and across denominations.
In contemporary Western Christianity, the typical Advent wreath has four candles inside an evergreen wreath. Each one is lit during a new week of Advent and has a particular meaning attached to it. Candle 1 is purple, known as “the Prophet’s Candle,” and it stands for hope. Candle 2 is purple, known as “the Bethlehem Candle,” and stands for peace. Candle 3 is pink or rose-colored, known as “the Shepherd’s Candle,” and stands for joy. Candle 4 is purple, known as “the Angel’s Candle,” and stands for love.
Some Christians add a fifth candle, a white one known as “Christ’s Candle,” which stands for baby Jesus. This candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the culmination of advent.
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What Place do Angels Have in the Christmas Story?
Angels appeared in the Christmas story even before Jesus appeared on the scene. The Gospel of Luke describes how the angel Gabriel appeared to a man named Zacharias, informing him that he and his wife would soon have a son (Luke 1:1-25). Zacharias’ son grew up to be John the Baptist, who preached that the Messiah was coming, and baptized Jesus in the Jordan River (Mark 1:1-7).
After giving Zacharias this message, Gabriel appeared to a young woman named Mary. He informed her that even though she wasn’t married and still a virgin, she would soon become pregnant with a son. This son would be from God, the long-promised Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). After Mary became pregnant, her fiancé Joseph considered “divorcing her quietly,” (Matthew 1:19) a way to avoid scandal. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and to marry her in spite of her pregnancy (Matthew 1:18-25).
The night that Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds outside Bethlehem, announcing the Messiah’s birth and telling them where to find him (Luke 2:8-20). Several years later, after the Wise Men had visited Mary and Joseph with gifts for Jesus, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. This time, he got a warning that Herod’s soldiers were coming to kill the infants of Bethlehem and to escape. The small family fled for Egypt and didn’t return until another angel appeared and told Joseph that Herod had died, so it was safe to return to Israel (Matthew 2:13-23).
Thus, within the Christmas story, angels function as messengers of love. They told people “good news” (Luke 1:19) which is unexpected, but no less good for being shocking. In some cases, the news that the angels gave saved people’s lives. Other times, it alerted people to something worth celebrating, in the future or nearby. In each of these cases, their message showed God’s love.
How Does the Bible Describe Love?
More so than perhaps any of the other advent candle themes, love is easily misunderstood. We often think of love in purely sentimental terms, thinking it just means being happy or being nice.
The Bible affirms that and that his sending Jesus into the world was an act of perfect love (1 John 4:8-12). Jesus loved people, and yet he didn’t try to always be nice to people. Sometimes he pushed people to consider what they really believed if they really wanted to follow him (Mark 10:17-27). Sometimes he got them to admit their mistakes so they could see how much they needed God (John 4:1-42). Throughout his ministry, he maintained that the key to finding God was not to “follow your heart” but to follow him, obey his teachings.
The Bible also makes it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection was the great act of love (1 John 3:16). This helps us see that love is sacrificial. As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “Love, whether used of God or man, is an earnest and anxious desire for and an active and beneficent interest in the well-being of the one loved.” 1 Corinthians 13 describes the attributes we pursue when we love someone (patient, kindness, trust, not having envy, etc.). None of these attributes are easy things to practice, which means that we need God’s help to live them out. In fact, God must teach us how to love: before becoming Christians, we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 3:1) and we still struggle to do anything that is not self-centered.
Therefore, we know that love ultimately is about living a life centered on God. To love God is to obey him (1 John 5:3). When we do that, we set our standards not by how we happen to feel, but by an eternal standard and person who can guide us. This helps us go beyond just trying to be nice, giving sacrificially, and doing difficult things because we love others.
Why Is Love So Important to Christmas?
As noted above, the Bible states that God sent Jesus into the world as an act of love. Jesus came into a world that desperately needed help because it was in the grips of sin. King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents captured this truth in a graphic way: Jesus had entered a world where greed and ruthless self-protection reigned.
Jewish prophets had said centuries earlier that someone would come that would bring an end to this strife. This Messiah, from the family line of King David (Ezekiel 37:24), would be born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) and be a great ruler (Isaiah 11:12). Gabriel affirmed these prophecies when he told Mary that her son would sit on David’s throne, reigning forever (Luke 1:32-33). The Messiah would bring an end to strife not by being a conventional ruler but by dying for people’s transgressions (Isaiah 53:5). People would be healed by the Messiah’s sacrifice, bringing freedom at last.
Thus, Jesus’ birth was proof that God had not abandoned or forgotten the world. His gift of love had come, to bring freedom for captives and heal the hurting (Luke 4:18). Jesus was the perfect gift.
A Prayer for Advent Week 4
Lord Jesus, thank you for your gift of love. We know that we were dead in our sins, and did not deserve anything but death. Thank you that in spite of our many sins, you still loved us and came to save us. You came and showed us how to love. Teach us what it is to love, and how to practice it each day. Remind us that love is paradoxical, sacrificial, and only found in you. Give us the wisdom we need to love well, the mercy to forgive ourselves when we neglect to love well, and the hunger to always learn more about love. We ask for all these things in your name, Amen.
You may also enjoy this list of Bible verses about “agape,” God’s love.
Photo credit: SWN/Unsplash
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
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What were the prophecies of Jesus' birth in the Bible? How many references did the Old Testament make to the coming of a messiah to save the children of Abraham? See the numerous biblical prophecies of the birth of Jesus Christ and what we can learn from the Old Testament about His divinity in this collection of scripture quotes.