7 Ways to Keep a Watchful Advent That Will Bear Fruit in Christmas Joy
Lockdown during the holidays offers an opportunity for conversion.
As the world heads into December 2020, nothing looks like the normal holiday rush. Catholics in the United States are used to office parties, school pageants, special choir rehearsals, concerts, ballets and a general mayhem of activity leading up to Christmas Day. This year, however, many of these activities are canceled, and even family gatherings don’t look like they did in 2019.
After nearly nine months of COVID-related disappointments, it seems almost too much to ask our children again to forgo the festive activity that the world tells them is their right. Some of us, in anticipation of the involuntary deprivations, just gave up and started playing Christmas music on Halloween.
But instead of jumping right into Christmas and chasing some elusive feeling of “holiday cheer,” we have this year an incredible opportunity to rediscover the season of Advent.
COVID may kill the parties, but it also slows us down and allows us time and space to reclaim our Christian traditions in our homes and parishes. If we allow it, the isolation, whether self- or state-imposed, will teach us how to wait for whom we look, and what we must do knowing that he is near.
In the early days of the Church, Advent was much like Lent: 40 days of preparation for celebrating the birth of the Messiah. In the sixth century, Gregory of Tours wrote that Catholics fasted Monday, Wednesday and Friday from the feast of St. Martin of Tours (Nov. 11) until Christmas Day. Advent in its present form of four Sundays and a more relaxed fast has been the practice of the Latin Church for about 1,000 years, but the actual practice of an “Advent penance” has almost disappeared (along with many Christian traditions) entirely from our current culture.
Families can anticipate Advent this year, not as pre-Santa party time, but as an imposed time of departure from “counterfeit Christmas.” Moses is calling, and we must leave Egypt tonight.
Jesus tells us that crowds left the towns and cities and went out into the wilderness to listen to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7). In the same way, COVID restrictions have sent us into the wilderness, away from distractions: Advent can be quieter this year, and we might enter with our immediate families and the small “pod” of our parish. What do we hear there? The “voice of one crying in the wilderness” has no easy message:
“He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:8-10)
We know what we must do, because we hear it every year at the beginning of Lent: Pray, fast, and give alms. We do not need to fear the coming wrath, because we know God is coming to us as an infant and he has taught us how to greet him.
This year, for Advent, let us take advantage of those extra hours the Lord is giving us. Instead of the office party, we can plan family prayer time. Instead of spending that $200 on hosting the Christmas cookie party, we can give to the poor.
Just as keeping Lent heightens the joy of Easter, keeping Advent will bear fruit in a Christmas joy you never thought possible.
Here are some concrete ways that families can take advantage of Advent 2020 through a little “mini-Lent” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
1. Prayer: Family dinner with Advent wreath and Mass readings. COVID-19 means more at-home meals and evenings together. Purchase four candles, three purple and one rose, for the center of your family table. (If you don’t have a wreath, no worries! Simple use pillar candles.) Each evening before grace at dinner, simply add one or more of the day’s Mass readings. Our family sings O Come, O Come Emmanuel while Dad lights the candle or candles for the week. On Christmas Eve, we add a white candle to the center and sing O Come, All Ye Faithful instead.
2. Prayer: If you’ve always wanted to pray the Rosary daily, this is the year to start. If you have small children, commit to just one decade of the Rosary as a family each night. No parish pageant this year? No children’s choir? Take that time to honor Our Lady and bring her your disappointments: she will pray with you for Christ’s peace.
3. Fasting: Fasting from social media platforms on Sundays, or multiple weekdays, will automatically turn down the world’s frenzied “holiday cheer” and trade it in for the joy of Christ. These are all very simple steps for parents to take, but children will remember that Advent is “like Lent.”
4. Fasting: Fast from Christmas music and make an Advent playlist. This may sound corny, but having a new “family soundtrack” during Advent can transform your home’s Christmas Day mood from, “Ugh! It’s been Christmas for three months, and I’m so glad it’s over!” to “I love Christmas Day!” We have become unfamiliar with Advent songs, hymns and carols, but here is a list to get you started on Spotify or AmazonMusic:
- In a Bleak Midwinter
- Creator of the Stars of Night or Creator Alme Siderum
- Totus Tuus (Voces 8)
- Veni, Veni Emmanuel
- Handel’s Messiah, Part I
- Gabriel’s Message (Matt Maher)
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Matt Maher)
- Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming
- Ave Maria (Gounoud, Caccini, Biebl)
- O Sanctissima
- Virgin Wholly Marvelous (Traditional)
- The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, have two marvelous albums for Advent: Advent at Ephesus and Angels & Saints at Ephesus.
5. Almsgiving: In anticipation of the Christ Child and the Holy Innocents, find a family with a new baby or mourning the loss of a loved one. Bring them a meal and ask your children to make cards for them.
6. Almsgiving: Most parishes also host food and clothing drives during advent. Participate as a family. (Yes, it would be easier for mom to just throw some cans in a bag herself. But enlist the help of your children, even if it means more work!)
7. Go to confession: Many Catholics make their yearly confession during Lent. This year, if you don’t regularly confess already, join with the crowds who looked for John and make a good Confession. Bring your whole family. Then you will all be ready to meet the infant Christ with open arms.