Found Art Advent Wreath

An Intergenerational Revisioning

For many years our congregation has used an Advent wreath to mark time during the weeks before Christmas. In our former traditional style of worship, the Advent wreath had been, well, very traditional: a large stand with four arms, each with a candle holder, plus a candle in the center. We often placed fresh greenery around and on the stand. The candles were usually purple and white, though sometimes we used a pink candle for the third week. Each candle had a special name, from the common hope, peace, joy, and love to more inventive groupings. Once or twice we even named them after Bible characters. Like many churches, we considered carefully who would light the candles in the wreath each year, and we agonized over scripts for them to use.

We began a new, alternative style of worship service in 2007, designed to include the key elements of Reformed worship, but done as differently as possible. A prayer of confession, but perhaps using drawings instead of words. A Scripture reading, but perhaps acted out behind a backlit sheet. A group art project in place of a song for the opening of worship. Music, but a diversity of musical styles, including music representative of our mission commitments around the world.

But then Advent rolled around, and we hadn’t thought much about what to do about the wreath. Then, a few years ago, I was at a workshop where I saw a sequence of visual installations that grabbed my attention and made me consider how they might be adapted for our own church, specifically for Advent. With the creativity of those in our congregation, we reimagined our Advent wreath to be made from “found art.”

I’d ask a family to review the readings for their assigned Sunday, looking especially for the nouns, and consider what things around their home could visually convey them. I also encouraged the family to consider crafting something to represent an important element in one or more of the readings. The family would bring their items to church on their given day along with a candle and/or candle holder from home. I provided a staging area (blocks of various sizes covered in different fabrics) along with generic thematic elements (ribbons, muted-tone stars, and so forth). The family would add their items to the installation before worship. During the wreath-lighting ceremony, family members would simply read the assigned verses, describe what they brought, and explain why they chose those particular elements. The family would then light their candle and say a short prayer. After worship, each family would take their objects home, but their candle remained in the wreath until we had an eclectic collection of five candles at the end of the season.

This was beautifully received by our worshiping congregation! They loved seeing what families brought in and hearing the stories behind the items. They enjoyed seeing what young children might create out of paper and glue and crayons and learning how a family connects the words of the Bible to real-life artifacts of their life together. We had an explosion of items over time—homemade stars, wine bottles, running shoes, a pickax, Legos, toy construction vehicles and cars, construction paper grass, pictures of a family dog, crèches of various materials and sizes—and many, many stories of and insights into our congregation’s families.

One drawback was managing scale. Sometimes the things a family brought in were very small and didn’t read very well from a distance. But this simply encouraged worshipers to come close to the installation before or after worship to see the details of what was presented.

The uncertainty of how a family would interpret their readings regularly led to serendipitous encounters with old stories. Families reported good experiences with the shared work of reading the Bible together and exploring home, toolshed, and sometimes farm for suitable items to include. I was about to say that the best experiences were with multigenerational families, but we have also had keenly powerful experiences led by a nuclear family of three, some living far from extended family, and some from nontraditional families. All of those dynamics played powerfully into the wreath-lighting liturgy.

I heartily encourage congregations seeking to enliven its Advent wreath ceremony and liturgy to consider letting go of some of the control over the content, inviting worshiping families to claim this liturgical action and to share of themselves within the community.

Michael Barker is director of music and worship arts at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church (PC(USA)) in the hills of western North Carolina, overseeing a vibrant community of musicians and visual artists. He is a choral conductor, organist, and active composer.