Celebrating Advent with a gaggle of young kids is challenging. Or, at least, I always thought it was. My perception of how Advent should be celebrated carried with it the weight of perfection throughout my childhood. When I was growing up, we did all the things good Catholics do—placed our Advent wreath with candles in a prominent location in our home; lit the candles and prayed a short devotional together every evening; read scripture for the Jesse tree; opened the Advent calendar day by day, etc.
My oldest, Felicity, was born about six weeks before Christmas. She is now 11 years old. At the time, I didn’t realize Advent was over and I’d done nothing at all “extra” to honor it, until Christmas Day. Then I lamented to my mom, who replied sagaciously, “You are living your Advent.”
It’s easy for us to rationalize that our lives are a canvas for prayer, that our work becomes prayer—and that we are living our Advent. There is truth to all of this, of course, but relationships require effort. This includes especially our relationship with God.
The type of effort our family places for special liturgical celebrations differs from year to year. Part of accepting our humanity is allowing the Holy Spirit to open our hearts for change. Life is fluid. Stagnancy is indicative of a deeper spiritual problem.
For me, the rigidity of having to do Advent a certain way, at a certain time, was not rooted in relationships. It did not emerge from a love for God, but rather out of a sentimentality of what was done in my past—and all the memories I associated with that. In other words, I was attached, not detached, to my concept of Advent, which is the very antithesis of what Advent is supposed to do for us.
Advent’s purpose is to change our hearts, to make a way for Christ to be born anew in us.
As a mom of five, including three aged four and under (and Sarah with her complex genetic condition), I get easily overwhelmed, as most modern mothers do. The way God has changed my way of living—and teaching our children—is that we do less, not more.
Fewer things, fewer rituals mean more—more room for Jesus, for listening to what He asks of us, for creative meditations and spontaneous conversations.
The center of our Advent celebration every year that does not change is our Advent wreath and daily family devotional. Plus, the younger kids enjoy the sacrifice manger. But some of the most beautiful moments happen without preparation or anticipation, at least for me. When the candle casts its ethereal glow on the faces of my girls gathered around it, I see in their eyes the wonder of what is to come.
Often, a simple Advent reflection, taken from the daily Mass readings or a children’s devotional, will spark profound conversations among our family. It’s in the gathering—“where two or more are gathered, I am among them,” Jesus said—where the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts, both individually and as a family.
It’s in the simple prayers where my children pull important questions about life, death, resurrection, and the afterlife. It’s where Ben and I acknowledge that some questions about faith do not have answers. We understand this side of heaven, and we call these spiritual mysteries for that reason.
Advent is the arrival of Christ in our hearts. He doesn’t demand that we keep up with traditions, only that we open ourselves to the ways in which He chooses to stir in us, like a baby stirring after birth. We empty ourselves of what is frivolous and unnecessary, so that we can welcome the coming of Jesus, both in His birth and at the end of time, when all will be judged and made right.
Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “Let us not resist His first coming, so that we may not regret His second.” When we find ourselves harried and frazzled with all the things we think we need to do, we are resisting His birth in us. But when we surrender our expectations of how Advent should be celebrated, we allow room for Jesus to act in and through us as He wishes.