Each December brings the same temptation for Catholics: Join one’s daily focus with the commercially oriented Christmas frenzy in nearly every corner of modern American society or avoid it for the sake of focusing on living and breathing the meaning of Advent in preparation of the real Christmas season. The tension between the movement of society and Christmas is perhaps not too different than what occurred at the time of Jesus.
Saints Elizabeth and Zechariah heard the news that the birth of Jesus was coming (Luke 1:39-45). Mary and Saint Joseph alone traveled to Bethlehem, where Jesus would be born, for the census (Luke 2:1-5). Jesus was not born in a home or inn surrounded by others; it was a modest event to the human eye with the Holy Family alone being present (Luke 2:6-7). There were some shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) and Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) that later arrived to participate in the blessed event. As we can see, from the very beginning the birth of Christ went unnoticed by most of the corporeal world. We too should not fear having a different rhythm and set of habits for the upcoming holiday season as we prepare through Advent for the true meaning of Christmas: The Nativity of our Lord.
The Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy provides us many insights into celebrating Advent with the heart and mind of the Church. It provides three key themes for the celebration of Advent: “a time of waiting, conversion and of hope” (No. 96). The theme of waiting is to remember the initial coming of Jesus 2,000 years ago in the city of Bethlehem as well as our current waiting for “his final, glorious coming as Lord of History and universal Judge” (No. 96). Conversion is at the heart of the Advent celebrations as we too seek to repent and be ready for the coming of Christ. Hope speaks of our hope of all that is possible by Christ’s grace as we grow in holiness.
Perhaps it might be beneficial to revisit some less often quoted words concerning Advent and Christmas.
In the period of Advent, for instance, the Church arouses in us the consciousness of the sins we have had the misfortune to commit, and urges us, by restraining our desires and practicing voluntary mortification of the body, to recollect ourselves in meditation, and experience a longing desire to return to God who alone can free us by His grace from the stain of sin and from its evil consequences.
With the coming of the birthday of the Redeemer, she would bring us to the cave of Bethlehem and there teach that we must be born again and undergo a complete reformation; that will only happen when we are intimately and vitally united to the Word of God made man and participate in His divine nature, to which we have been elevated.
This is a profound call the Church has for us this Advent and every Advent. It is truly to make Advent more than religious activities but rather a period of grace-filled waiting, authentic and deeper conversion, and a renewed sense of hope. Returning to the Directory mentioned above, here are some of the suggested, although not exhaustive, means of celebrating Advent with the mind and heart of the Church:
1. The Advent Wreath is a four-candle wreath used to solicit a sense of waiting and progression while recalling the “various stages of salvation history” that culminates with the coming of Christ (No. 98).
2. Advent Processions have either been to announce the birth of Jesus Christ to the world or to recall the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem (No. 99). This is seen in many parishes and neighborhoods under the name posadas.
3. Marian Devotion throughout the season of Advent recalls both the “women of the Old Testament who prefigured and prophesied her mission” (No. 101) and recalls Mary’s faith and role in the events preceding the birth of Christ. Some examples of such devotion include: the Novena of the Immaculate Conception that progresses through the Marian passages from Genesis 3:15 to Luke 1:31-33, and devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe. These devotions are rooted in and flow towards their corresponding liturgical celebrations (No. 102).
4. Vespers [Evening Prayer] from the Liturgy of the Hours is a means of preparing for Christmas through the daily rhythm of the Church’s liturgical prayer and in a special way through Vespers from December 17th-23rd with the “major antiphons” (No. 103). There are many apps for smart phones for accessing the Liturgy of the Hours easily and the clergy are already praying these liturgical prayers (Code of Canon Law 1174 §1).
In the hope of promoting the themes of waiting, conversion, and hope, I would like to humbly add some additional ideas for celebrating Advent in 2018:
5. The Sacrament of Confession to renew and deepen our conversion to Christ. Confession is also called the Sacrament of Conversion (CCC 1423).
6. Daily Reading of Scripture to recall the major events of salvation history and prophecies related to the coming of Christ by reading these passages, within their broader context. Some examples: Genesis 3:15, Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:17, 2 Samuel 7:16, Isaiah 11:1, Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 23:5, Micah 5:2, Luke 1:1-80. The Jesse Tree is also a wonderful tool in this practice.
7. Eucharistic Adoration to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of the Presence of Christ. This is an excellent opportunity to contemplate the mystery of Jesus as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
8. Increased Care for the Poor to remember Jesus who was born in the humblest of circumstances and “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).
There is not a person on earth that does not hunger for the gift of joy, hope, and meaning. Especially in the times we find ourselves in, we hunger for it even more. Nothing will bring us a better sense of these gifts during the Advent Season than celebrating Advent with the heart and mind of the Church, basking in the grace of God as we prepare for Christmas Mass and Christmastide.