You would have to live in a cave to not know that Christmas is coming. The day after Thanksgiving, almost everyone is preparing. Shopping for presents, putting up trees, sending cards, making cookies, and hosting parties. In some churches and Christian homes the Advent Wreath will come out, maybe a Jesse Tree, and the Christmas trees and ornaments may be added weekly to slowly emphasize the Light of Christ coming into the world. The Season of Advent is a time of busy preparation and one that even the secular world will not let us forget.
So much of the love for Christmas has to do with family, giving, beauty and the longing for joy and peace in the world. These are all good things and I believe the desire to start celebrating Christmas earlier than we should has to do with people’s lives lacking these simple things at other times of the year. People desire the love and goodness that so many enjoy at Christmas time.
The problem with all of this merry making and festivity is that it’s happening at the wrong time. Advent is indeed a time of preparation but even more important than getting our shopping list checked off and planning the perfect meal is how we have prepared our souls, how we have prepared our hearts to receive the baby Jesus as our King on Christmas Day.
We must remember that as Christians we do not celebrate Advent or Christmas out of sentiment over the Lord’s birth. The reality is this: just as we are truly present in heaven at Divine Liturgy (Mass) we are also truly present at the feasts we celebrate. God of course is outside of time and it is His life that we are sharing in when we participate in the sacraments and the liturgical calendar of the Church. Participation in His life means we are mystically present at the birth of the Messiah. Advent is meant to place us in the time before He was born. The entire Old Testament is a story of preparation. God was preparing His chosen people to give to the world first, Mary—the summit of the Jewish people, and then the fruit of her womb—Jesus Christ.
So how can we prepare our hearts and lives to receive the baby born in the lowly manger on Christmas Day? The best way to do this is the same way Christians have been preparing for major feasts for centuries: through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
“Man has a noble task: That of prayer and love. To pray and love, that is the happiness of man on earth.”
– St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney
Prayer changes us. Prayer makes way for the Lord to come into our hearts and draw us closer to Him. St. Paul told us to, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16-18) Now is a perfect time to work harder at heeding these words. The beauty of the liturgical calendar is that it allows us to experience salvation history and our Lord’s life over and over again. We are invited each year to grow deeper in our relationship with God. Prayer is key to this growth.
Part of increasing our prayer should include celebrating the numerous feast days during Advent: Celebrate St. Nicholas! December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas. There are so many wonderful traditions around the word about this awesome saint. We have integrated some Eastern traditions and American traditions into our own family. The first sign of Christmas decorations in our house are put up for St. Nicholas’s feast day. I use a little table and place St. Nicholas’s icon on it and then surround the icon with all my St. Nick figurines and collectables. The kids will place their shoes by the table the night before his feast and wake up to chocolate coins, a candy cane, and a small present (usually an ornament) from St. Nicholas. We then get ready and go to Divine Liturgy (Mass) for St. Nicholas’s feast day. A good breakfast follows church and stories about St. Nicholas are read. We try to pray this Akathist to St. Nicholas as well. We also hang the kid’s stockings in anticipation that they will be filled by St. Nicholas who also brings them a religious gift on Christmas Day (and sometimes something fun too). When the kids are old enough to know that St. Nicholas doesn’t actually come, we explain that all of the fun was a way to honor his life and that they are now being called to grow closer to him and deepen their relationship with him. One way they do this is by helping to prepare the St. Nicholas gifts for their younger siblings. Real love for this saint has grown out of these traditions.
Don’t forget your mother! On the Western calendar, Dec. 8th is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On the Eastern calendar, Dec. 9th is the Conception by St. Anna of the Mother of God. Dec. 12th is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
There are other beloved saints who’s feasts fall during Advent (St. Lucy, St. Barbara, St. Spyridon, and St. John of the Cross for example) learn about them and honor them on their feasts! There are many wonderful traditions, which are perfect for Advent, to celebrate the feast of St. Lucy, you can read about them here and here.
The scriptures that are chosen for this season can be read daily and will deepen our understanding of Advent and Christmas. The U.S. Bishop’s website has the daily readings and they have also provided other resources for Advent and Christmas season, you can find more info here.
An Akathist in preparation for Christmas would be a good addition to your prayer routine, you can find it here.
This is also a good time to go to confession to cleanse our souls with repentance and forgiveness before receiving the Lord on Christmas Day.
“Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.” – Pope Benedict XVI
There is a hunger inside all of us that food alone could never satisfy. We try very hard during the holidays to meet that satisfaction in some way. As we all know, it never lasts. Fasting from certain foods can help us to understand that God alone fills our deepest desires. Eastern Catholics keep a traditional fast of the Church that goes a long way in helping us realize this truth. The Nativity Fast is a vegan fast with fish and shellfish allowed for half of Advent on certain days. This fast is kept in varying degrees by the faithful in the Eastern churches. I have written about how my family keeps this fast here. This may give you some ideas to work from.
“To do alms is a work greater than miracles. . . . To feed the hungry in the name of Christ is a work greater than raising the dead in Christ’s name. …When thou work miracles, you are God’s debtor; when you give alms, God is your debtor.” – St. John Chrysostom
We will all see the bell ringers outside the shops; maybe participate in a food, coat, or toy drive. We love buying gifts for family and friends—this season is a season of giving. These are good things of course, but we want to be careful that we don’t simply give in to consumerism. We also need to be careful not to give in to the temptation of feeding one’s own ego and easing one’s own conscience when doing these things. In giving to the needy, we really want to make an effort to dig deep, to make sacrifices, and reach out to our neighbor. Acts of charity should be the fruit of our prayer and fasting efforts.
Don’t forget: acts of charity include hospitality. People can be very lonely this time of year, reaching out and inviting them to our homes for a meal and company is very important. Reach out to the young couple at church, or the family who would love a night out, and don’t forget your priest, or simply a friend or family member you haven’t spent a lot of time with. Hospitality can make a positive difference in other’s lives.
Embracing the ancient Christian practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this Advent Season can prepare the entire family to welcome the Messiah with open hearts in a way that all the other activities people do this time of year never will. By setting ourselves apart from the noise and hasty preparations, and focusing on readying our souls, we will find that the joy of Christmas morning will ring louder and the light of Christ will shine brighter in our lives all throughout the Season of Christmas.