Advent Finds for the Whole Family

Advent Retreating, New Music, A Great Calendar, a Novel, and an App I Love

(photo: Register Files)

Advent is the kind of season that has plenty of opportunity and yet there’s so much going on anyway that I usually battle fatigue by about a week in.

There’s never a shortage of new Advent products, but this year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a couple of items that may resonate with me in a way that few things do.

Pray More Advent Retreat

John-Paul and Annie Deddens are the married force behind the Pray More Novenas website, and I’ve been subscribed for many years. 

Last year at Lent, they introduced a retreat, and I’ll be honest: I hit the pass button.

But when I heard that they were doing a retreat during Advent, I reconsidered. Advent is, so often, a rushed affair for me, and I want to try to slow things down.

Also, they asked me to be a speaker. Don’t hold that against them: there are plenty of great speakers:

  • Dr. Scott Powell
  • Elizabeth Ficocelli
  • Constance Hull
  • Fr. Anthony Co
  • Stephen Beale

The topics include slowing down, keeping Advent holy, and suffering. I’m particularly interested in a few of the talks that focus on saints, including a few of my favorites: St. Therese and St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Oh, and there are talks about prayer and Scripture that caught my attention.

In fact, I’m thinking that if I watch and pray with one talk twice a week, I’ll still have some left over, but my Advent will be far different. Though I’m not a fan of watching videos most of the time (hence all the book reviews!), I’m going to try it this year, with a nod of thanks to John-Paul and Annie for making it possible.

Music to Put You in the Advent Mood

O Emmanuel arrived in my mailbox and I made a mental note to give it a listen.

And then I did what I shouldn’t have done: I put it in my review pile and commenced with the start of basketball season, the preparations for Thanksgiving, and attacked the work, laundry, and dishes.

My delight was unbounded, though, when finally I popped the CD into my computer (because the player in the car has suffered an unfortunate side effect of abuse from small humans). The music is good (which explains the debut at #1 on the Billboard Chart!) in a way that is holy and reflective and will make me slow down mentally.

It’s going to be my soundtrack for this Advent.

Grammy award-winning pianist and composer J.J. Wright worked with the Notre Dame Children’s Choir and Fifth House Ensemble on the ten tracks included in O Emmanuel

The whole compilation truly does lead you closer to the infant Christ as it travels from “Gabriel’s Message” (track 1) to “Christ the Lord is Born Today” (track 10). Unlike most Christmas music, which focuses on the birth of Christ, these tracks leads you on a journey that’s best described as from darkness to light.

“O Emmanuel focuses on the pilgrimage of spiritual preparation that shepherds the earnest to Christmas Day,” according to the pamphlet included with the CD.

As someone who suffers from “Christmas fatigue” from about November 15 until Christmas Day, and utters bah-humbug at everyone who insists I should have holiday cheer, I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to remember that I do love Christmas. It reminds me to be childlike as I approach the manger, and that, above all, it’s not about me.

If you’re interested in winning a copy, Daria Sockey has ten copies she’s giving away over at Coffee and Canticles.

Gospel Advent Calendar

Years ago, my mother-in-law gifted us a beautiful Advent calendar that’s a scene of the nativity and has boxes for each day of December leading to Christmas. One year, we filled each day with candy. Another year, we put a piece of paper in each slot with a suggestion for a prayer, an act of service, or a treat.

In the identical Advent calendar at her house, my mother-in-law puts dollar bills (and sometimes even a twenty!), candy, and treats of all sorts.

Then, last year, I did something I’ve never done with my kids: I bought chocolate Advent calendars. And…they hated the chocolate. Lesson learned.

You’d think, as the author of a best-selling Advent pamphlet that I would have my Advent act together. You’d be completely mistaken!

This year, I was intrigued by the Gospel Advent calendar available from Ignatius Press. It’s made of cardboard and will probably last at least two years with my ruffians. Each day in December has a pop-open flap that reveals a short phrase.

The companion booklet that comes with it contains a Scripture reading and a little drawing.

For example, on December 20, the flap opens to reveal a shepherd boy playing a flute, with the words “Watch and pray.” Then, in the booklet, we read:

Watch at all times, praying. (Luke 21:36)

What joy, the Lord is near, he is coming.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your mercy is great to the heavens
your faithfulness to the clouds. (Psalm 57)

We thank you, Lord, and we praise you for your goodness to us.

It’s about as much as my family can handle during the kickoff of basketball season, December chaos, and other chores and responsibilities we have. I’m looking forward to trying it and hearing the discussion that may ensue across the ages of my kids.

In fact, I suspect I will get plenty of food for thought from this in my own prayer life!

A Novel that Takes You on a Journey to Christ

What must the Three Wise Men really been like? Honestly, I never thought about it, but I was forced to consider it when I picked up From Afar, a new release from Roger Thomas and Tumblar House.

Roger Thomas is expert in his storytelling, and he portrays the Holy Family as real people, personal and touching and relatable. The journey of the magi to the Christ child is…well, it feels almost normal, like they were people who just had a job to do.

Thomas’ narrative makes you consider what life was like, and it also presents the reality of the people who were involved in Jesus’ life. I found myself thinking beyond the story, to the many ordinary people who must have been part of his childhood and early life.

I have rarely read such well-crafted prose, and plan to reread this and savor it again, the way I savor my favorite foods and the very best fiction. This is the kind of literature I want to have around for my kids and favorite people to read.

The Classic Advent App

I’ve been a fan of Magnificat magazine for as many years as I’ve been Catholic. One of the first things I did as a new Catholic was subscribe, and it was thanks to the monthly magazines that I began to understand and fully appreciate the depth of the faith I had embraced.

That first Lent, I had a copy of the Lenten Companion thanks to a parish I visited that was handing them out to everyone. That began a Lenten and Advent journey for me that involved their companion books.

When I discovered their iOS apps, I was thrilled and jumped right in. And when I got my first smartphone, an Android, I was sure to write and beg them to design an Android app. (They still haven’t, but they assure me it’s underway…there may be hope soon, because I just heard that the Magnificat app is in beta on Google Play!)

The Advent app features the daily Scripture readings from Mass, as well as morning, evening, and night prayers (it’s a “lite” version of Liturgy of the Hours, and it’s the reason I was ever able to try out the breviary…though I keep coming back to the beauty of the presentation and extras in Magnificat).

There are also special daily meditations that make the Advent season meaningful. I always find them helpful: no matter what my state of mind, they seem to meet me where I am and tease out my bah-humbug tendencies and replace that with an openness that I need.

In addition to these great daily features, there are also prayers and essays, an Advent penance service, and—one of my favorites—the Advent Stations.