As we begin our new Liturgical year, lighting our first Advent candle, we embark on a pilgrimage once again towards the Christ Child, a pilgrimage blessed with hope. Advent is the perfect time to rediscover the beauty and depth of Christmas hope. We are so fortunate and truly blessed that the Holy Spirit has inspired our holy father, Pope Benedict XVI to gift us with his new encyclical, Spe Salvi, Saved by Hope, at this moment in time to a world that is for the most part without God — a world seemingly depleted of hope.
Catholics are given this time of preparation by our Church to prepare our hearts, our families and our homes. We can succumb to the hustling and bustling that our material-oriented culture would have us participate in. After all, the newest toys, gadgets, electronics, and fashions are exploding from the television set, radio, the Internet, store window displays, and sales pages of the newspaper, each store boasting of the absolute best sale ever. Children know exactly what they want for Christmas and where it can be gotten! It's a difficult task for parents to teach the true meaning of the Advent season in an era when Christians are even prohibited to some extent from publicly expressing their faith-filled sentiments of this holy season.
It's almost impossible to escape the chaos to find some peace with the craze of materialism enveloping us. However, we can decide to stay away from the commercialism and materialism as best as we can and use this holy season wisely and prayerfully. Time can be put aside each day for essential personal prayer and family prayer, seeking a bit of stillness in which to retreat to the heart for reflection.
The Catechism tells us, "When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: 'He must increase, but I must decrease'" (CCC no. 524 and John 3:30).
Parents should make use of the Advent wreath tradition within their own homes — their domestic Churches. Each evening at the family dinner table, the candle or candles can be lit and each child can voice a prayer of petition and thanksgiving. In our ever-busier world, the dinner table is a place where we can finally come together as a family to eat, to communicate and to pray; whether it be at our homes or in the convent and the rectory for the Religious. Let's make sure that we hang on to this together time.
Some families also use a Jesse tree and hang an ornament each day, also counting down the days until Christmas. The Advent calendar is a fun way for children to count the days during Advent until Christmas. I like to have children do a good deed for baby Jesus each day and say a prayer before opening a door on the calendar. With preschoolers and young ones, I encourage making a paper chain of twenty-five hoops of construction paper strips stapled together or however many days there are that year from beginning to end of Advent. Each day the child can rip off a loop to count down the days to end up at Christmas day. Little ones can sit down or kneel down to say a little prayer with their parents and listen to a Bible story or Bible verse each day.
During this time of preparation, let's ask our Lord where we can lend a hand to our lonely relative, our elderly neighbor, our co-workers and all who are in our midst. Where can we guide our children to help others this Advent season? These are questions we can prayerfully seek answers to and then act upon them. A friendly visit, the gift of our time, is the best gift we can give when we are pretty much out of time. It is a gift of love that may be difficult to part with although it may be the most appreciated. A batch of cookies can be decorated and given to the local soup kitchen, Christmas cards can be handmade by the children and delivered to the local nursing home and, while there, perhaps sing a Christmas Carol or two. People around us are craving love and hope. Will we respond in love to their needs?
Our lack of time gets in the way of our prayer life as well. We are a busy people who find it hard to slow down to pray properly and to reflect. We barely give our Lord time to speak to our hearts because we are much too busy for Him. We tend to fill all of the gaps of silence with noise, running from activity to activity. How can we expect to hear Him? As we make our way along our pilgrimage of Advent, we should pause each and every day in prayer. It's also a most appropriate time to read and reflect upon Pope Benedict's new encyclical, too.
Reflecting on Christmas, Pope Benedict said, "It is only the Child lying in the manger who possesses the true secret of life. For this reason he asks us to welcome him, to make room for him within us, in our hearts, in our homes, in our cities, and in our societies…Let us endeavor to be among those who welcome him…The love that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, brought into the world binds to himself in a lasting relationship of friendship and brotherhood all who welcome him."
So, as we prepare our homes with Christmas decorations, let's not neglect to prepare our hearts. Our Lord beckons us to "Stay awake" — to draw near to Him. Our Lord asks us to open our hearts to Him — to bring everything to His manger in Bethlehem so that He can heal us, transforming our hearts and souls. Will we go to see Him and allow Him to love us?
"O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!"