Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent: one without the other

Being a convert to the Catholic faith, I lived most of my 31 years largely unaware of the season of Advent, in spite of the fact that all three Protestant churches I attended throughout those years used an Advent wreath in December.  I knew each candle represented something different.  And I knew it was somehow intended to be a countdown to Christmas.  But like so many other traditions borrowed from two-thousand years' worth of, well, Tradition, it had been watered down, divorced from some of its original meaning.

Which the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains here:  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 (524).

Advent is a season of preparation and heart conversion.  Where we look to the hope and salvation of the Christ-Child.  It is a season when we examine our sin and our lives and our hearts, and resolve to do better and to love better.  It is a season when we hunger and thirst for Jesus' coming and presence in our lives.  And where we anticipate His second coming, too.

And it feels strange, Advent, because we Catholics are observing a liturgical season of penance and praying and waiting while the majority of the culture is feasting.  We aren't technically celebrating Christmas yet, but of course everywhere we go, it's already Christmas--what with the music and trees and snowmen and Black Friday sales.  It's Christmas devoid of much religious meaning, period.

So I'm finding that Advent is a bit of a shift for me, because I love me some Christmas festive-ness.  The egg nog, candy canes, and Bing Crosby songs make me positively giddy.  I love the twinkly lights on our Christmas tree and the Russian Teacakes and fudge I bake each year.  I love family traditions.  And, well, food.  And I'm used to kicking all of these things off the minute the calendar flips to December, because December 1st has always signaled Christmas to me. 

But I'm reorienting myself a bit, attempting to hold off on some of the specifically Christmas celebrating, while embracing the anticipation, and the opportunity to really examine my heart and my need for a Savior.  I admit that I'm not rejecting any and all premature Christmas festivities (I have a carton of egg nog in the fridge, and I do plan to do some baking), but I am focusing more on Advent than on Christmas right now.  And you know what?  It's a really remarkable thing.  Spending four weeks contemplating the Virgin Birth, and the world's desperate need for hope and salvation, is actually really beautiful in its own right.  Plus, preparing for and desiring Jesus in this way makes Christmas itself that much more monumental and joy-filled.

The rhythms of the liturgical calendar are good for our souls. 

I've talked before about how finding the Catholic Church (or really, it finding me) has been like discovering an endlessly vast and bottomless trove of treasure.  The richness, steadfastness, beauty, wisdom, depth, and fullness are a priceless gift.  And so, while I think it's lovely that assorted faith traditions still give a customary nod to Advent each year through the weekly lighting of the candle, I also regret that so much has been lost in translation about this important season in the Church. 

So at 31 years old, I am doing a bit of catch-up in implementing Advent in my home.  For anyone interested, here is our plan for the coming weeks:

We have an Advent wreath and candles displayed on our dining room table.  Where of course we spend a lot of time.  Each Sunday night we will do our Advent reading and light the appropriate candle, while singing an Advent hymn.  This is such a simple and beautiful tradition, and the kids are loving it. 

Yesterday, the first day of Advent, we went around the table and shared our Advent resolutions.  My kids chose things like being kind to siblings, saying extra prayers, and having good attitudes.

For our family's daily Advent readings, we are using Welcome Baby Jesus--which I love, love, love!  It includes scripture and action items, and prayer and reflection.  We will do a reading each evening before dinner as we light that week's candle(s).

I'm so looking forward to reading Catherine Doherty's Donkey Bells: Advent and Christmas, gifted to us by our wonderful friends Devin and Katie.  The author is incredible and I'm so anxious to dig in!

My own Advent resolution is to do personal spiritual reading each and every day.  I've had Saint Francis De Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life on my nightstand for months now, and I'm finally getting back into it, and I'm also planning to do the daily Mass readings each day.  I find that if I don't make time to read spiritual, deep, contemplative things, I start to feel a bit dry.  But I've been pretty exhausted for much of my pregnancy and not doing as much of that type of reading, so I'm excited to resume.

Have you heard about Advent at Ephesus?  I ordered the CD today, and can't wait for it to arrive!  It is a collection of Advent hymns (some in Latin and some in English), sung by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles--and most of the proceeds go directly to their community in rural Missouri.  A friend recommended it on Saturday and when I looked it up online, I was sold.

We have our Christmas tree set up already, but I'm waiting until Christmas to put the star on top.  It's a bit of an effort to do the tree, and so it went up early, but I think it will still seem pretty magical to put the star up on Christmas Eve.  (I'm debating whether or not to also leave the lights off until Christmas, but it looks kind of funny without the lights.  So, I don't know.)

December is of course filled with many delightful feast days to celebrate in addition to Christmas itself--Saint Nicholas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Saint Lucy, and the Immaculate Conception, to name a few.  At night during our family rosary time, we read about the saint having a feast day.

It's merely a fact that the religious aspect of Christmas has all but disappeared from the culture at large.  It is nearly impossible, for example, to find a box of Christmas cards at Target that reflects the birth of Jesus.  So it may be ironic, but it is not surprising, nor does it really affect me much at all--the existence of the commercialized secular version of the holiday (that now apparently begins on Thanksgiving Day) does not keep me up at night.  However, our family does things a bit differently, and as such, we hope to observe Advent as readily as we observe Christmas. 

Because, as I've come to see, you cannot have one without the other.


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