My first experience with an Advent Wreath was when I came as Pastor to Altadena Baptist Church in 1972. It wasn’t part of my Christmas tradition growing up, and I had never been involved with a church that used it in its Christmas celebration. It seemed vaguely Catholic to me, because of its candles and its symbolism.
It was six months after I began as ABC’s Pastor that I watched as Elsa Bertell, Mildred Bent and the others on the decorating committee put up the greenery, the bows and ornaments that transformed the sanctuary into its festive holiday mode. When the Advent Wreath appeared on the Communion table, I was puzzled. Why were these liturgical, candles a central part of a Baptist church’s Christmas worship?
I asked questions, and I learned a lot about the church’s Swedish roots. Just six years earlier, Altadena Baptist Church was shaped by a merger between First Baptist of Altadena, which had existed on the site since 1934, and Bethel Baptist of Pasadena, whose congregation had been shrinking to the point where it was hard for them to support their own church facility. Bethel Baptist had been formed in 1920 as First Swedish Baptist Church of Pasadena, and many in the congregation were within one generation of immigration from the old country. In the merger, the people who moved up the hill from Bethel brought with them some of their valued Swedish traditions, and one of those was the Advent Wreath at the heart of their Christmas worship.
A little research deepened my appreciation of this beautiful way of telling the Gospel story of Christmas. The practice began among German Lutherans in the sixteenth century, and it spread among Lutheran churches in all the northern European countries. In Sweden, where Church and State were inseparable during those times, the Advent Wreath became as much a symbol of Swedishness as of Christianity. With the short days of deep mid-winter in Europe’s far north, the simple act of lighting a candle on the Advent Wreath can bring renewed hope and joy. When the Baptists split from the Lutheran State Church in the 1840s, they abandoned many practices that seemed, to them, to be too much like Catholicism, but they held on to the Advent Wreath because it was as much cultural as religious. It was a part of being Swedish at Christmastime.
Because of religious persecution and economic hard times, many Swedish Baptists emigrated to America during the late nineteenth century. Some of them found their way to the West Coast, and that’s how the Swedish part of ABC came here. They brought their Advent Wreath Christmas tradition with them.
My first Christmas at ABC, in 1972, I watched Elsa, Mildred and the others set up ABCs Advent Wreath, and I’ve watched (and sometimes helped) as succeeding Decorating Committees carefully place each year’s wreath on the Communion Table, right down to Brenda Curl and her crew in 2019. The Advent Wreath has become important to my personal annual experience of faith renewal through the Christmas story.
This year, however, you’ll have to help me from your homes, as we together allow the candles of the Advent Wreath to light our way through Christmas 2020.
– Pastor George Van Alstine