On the Third Sunday of Advent, many churches light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath. We don’t do this for mere aesthetics — we’re not inserting an "accent" candle to brighten things up. Nor is it because the powers that be secretly hope Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" will replace the opening hymn.
No, that third candle is pink (or technically rose-colored) because it’s Gaudete Sunday.
Okay, let me back up and do some explaining here. First of all, we refer to the Third Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday (pronounced gow-dey-tay) because the introit for the mass begins “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete” meaning “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice,” based on Philippians 4:4.
While much of the penitential nature of the season has been lost in favor of hopeful expectation, some of the readings still do sound this note, as do the seasonal collects, as Scott Gunn pointed out in a recent blog post. The Third Sunday has traditionally been a respite from the penitential themes of Advent emphasizing instead the joy of the coming of the Lord.
Thus many view the pink candle as emphasizing joy. As with most things liturgical, however, there is not consensus here. Some associate the candle with Mary and perhaps there’s confusion because Laetare Sunday — the Fourth Sunday in Lent — is the other occasion for rose-colored vestments. This is a slight misnomer, however, because this so-called Mothering Sunday refers not to Our Lady but to an old practice in England where the rich gave their servants the Sunday off to go home and visit their mothers. Indeed, Mary appears in the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, not the third.
To go even further back, it’s worth looking at the history of Advent wreaths themselves. There is evidence that some pre-Christian Germanic people placed candles on wreaths in the middle of winter as a symbol of hope that the warm weather of spring would return. And ancient Scandinavians placed candles on wheels in “the bleak mid-winter” as an anticipatory devotion to the sun god. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Christians adopted the practice of the Advent wreath as a pre-Christmas devotion.
As I mentioned, some churches use rose-colored vestments twice a year — on the Fourth Sunday in Lent and the Third Sunday of Advent. Both days are seen as times of refreshment, feasting, and joy amid a penitential season. As well as an opportunity to look silly in pink, I mean rose, colored vestments.
So there you have it — a brief explanation about the pink candle that will be lit this Sunday. And as the light continues to build on the Advent wreath, so may the hopeful anticipation of meeting Christ anew build in your heart during this holy season.