Candle Lighting Litanies for Advent and Christmas

Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Advent wreath candle lighting tradition began almost twenty years ago and for many years continued undeveloped beyond the early selection of names for each candle: Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherds, and Angels. In 2018, these loosely established themes were carefully expanded with written litanies of Scripture and prayer and tied to the more universally recognized themes of hope, love, joy, and peace. Now a vibrant part of our seasonal corporate liturgy, Advent candle lighting is embedded within the worship service and enacted by members of the congregation. Groups leading this portion of worship represent the diversity of our local church community, including intergenerational family units, small groups of friends, Sunday School classes, and (thanks to video technology) even an elderly member who is no longer able to attend in person. These groups exercise creativity in how the readings are divided, choosing to take turns, use one representative reader, or read portions in unison. Someone from each group prepares and leads a prayer. While helpful guidance develops the prayer’s content, freedom remains for our fellowship’s preferred extemporaneous praxis.

In addition to the four candles of Advent, our practice has grown to include a Christ candle on Christmas Sunday. Our Advent and Christmas candle lightings connect deeply to their surrounding liturgical elements and are integrated with our worship narrative. As a non-lectionary church, our contextualized observance of Advent and Christmas honors denominational distinctions while creating community liturgical traditions that connect us with the universal church.



Hope (The Prophecy Candle)


Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we light the Prophecy Candle and think about the hope that is ours in Christ. The prophets wrote of Christ’s incarnation long before his birth. As we hear their words, we remember our sin and our need for a Savior.

[Light the first (purple) candle.]

In Isaiah 40:1–5 we are given these words of hope:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

And from Hebrews 1:1–2, 8, and 12 we read:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. . . . About the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. . . . You remain the same, and your years will never end.”

[Pray using corporate language (“we” instead of “I”; “our” instead of “my”). Acknowledge our sin and our need for a Savior. Thank the Lord for the hope we have in Christ. Consider writing out your prayer ahead of time so that you can express thoughts on behalf of the congregation with clarity and brevity.]



Love (The Bethlehem Candle)


Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, we light the Bethlehem Candle and think about the love that Christ demonstrated. His sacrificial love was evident as he took on human flesh and entered our world in humility.

[Light the first (purple) candle and the second (purple) candle.]

In Micah 5 we hear of the Savior who was to come.

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

And in Luke 2:1, 3–7 we read of the fulfillment of that promise:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. . . . And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

[As in week 1, pray using corporate language. Acknowledge the great love Christ demonstrated when he was born in Bethlehem and placed in a humble manger. Thank him that he is our high priest who is familiar with all of our struggles and can sympathize with our weakneses.]



Joy (The Shepherds’ Candle)


On this third Sunday of Advent, we light the Shepherds’ Candle. The church traditionally gives the title “Gaudete” to this week of Advent. “Gaudete” is the Latin word for “rejoice.” May our souls rejoice like the shepherds’ as we worship today!

[Light the first (purple) candle, the second (purple) candle, and the third (pink) candle.]

Hear God’s joyful Word from Zechariah 2:10–11, in which the Lord declares:

“Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you. . . . Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.”

And in Luke 2:8–20 we hear of another joyful tiding:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

[As in weeks 1 and 2, pray using corporate language. Express joy that our Savior came. Thank God for choosing humble shepherds—the lowest of society—to receive his announcement. Praise God that his Advent is for all and that he is the source of and object of our joy.]



Peace (The Angels’ Candle)


On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the Angels’ Candle. We marvel at the God who declares to us, “Fear not!” and his gift to us: the Prince of Peace.

[Light the first (purple) candle, the second (purple) candle, the third (pink) candle, and the fourth (purple) candle.]

In Isaiah 9:6–7 we read of this promise of peace:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

And in Luke 2:13–14 we read that:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

And in John 14:27 Christ provides these words of comfort:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

[As in previous weeks, pray using corporate language. Give thanks that because of Christ we have peace with God and can experience the peace of God.]



Light (The Christ Candle)


On the Sunday after Christmas, we light the Christ Candle.

[Light the first (purple) candle, the second (purple) candle, the third (pink) candle, and the fourth (purple) candle. Then light the center (white) candle.]

John 1:1–5 says this about Christ, the light of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This fulfills the prophecy from Isaiah 60:1–3, which also speaks of the coming light of the world:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Finally, Revelation 21:23–24 looks forward to the day when Christ’s light will fill the whole world:

The city [will] not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.

[As in previous weeks, pray using corporate language. Give thanks for Christ, who is the Light that ends the darkness.]

Sally Powell is the director of worship arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Dayton, Tennessee.

Reformed Worship 145 © September 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.