With Thanksgiving over and all the Indian and pilgrim figurines put away, our thoughts immediately turn to Christmas with all its preparations. The focus is on decorating the house and buying that perfect gift.
But wait! There is an important liturgical season that is often overlooked, and that is Advent. So before we plunge into Christmas, let's take time to enjoy a proper spiritual preparation for our Lord's birth. Advent is celebrated on four Sundays, not necessarily four weeks, before the Feast of Christmas. The word, “Advent,” comes from the Latin, “to come,” and is the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year. We wait in anticipation for the coming of our Lord on Dec. 25.
At Mass you will notice the priest’s vestments are purple, the liturgical color for Advent. This signifies the penitential aspect of Advent. Unlike Lent's penitential aspect which is sorrowful, Advent's takes on an aspect of longing. We long for our Lord to come. We prepare our hearts for the wonder of His birth. Because we are surrounded by all the secular preparations, the Catholic family has to strive to make room for Advent. We can't expect our children to be excited about Christ's birth unless we help them prepare their hearts.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath with its round shape (God has no beginning or end), its greenery (God's love is everlasting) and candles (Jesus is the light of the world) is a perfect sacramental for Advent. The Advent wreath holds four candles which represent the 4,000 years humanity waited for God’s promise to Adam and Eve of a Savior until the birth of the Messiah. Lighting each candle symbolizes the darkness of sin being dispelled until the advent (or coming) of Jesus, the Light of the World. We recall the great drama of salvation history. In many countries, the candles used are three purple for the penitential aspect and one pink for the rejoicing. On the first two Sundays of Advent we light the first two purple candles. Then on the 3rd Sunday you will notice the priest’s vestments are a rose color. This Sunday is called, “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin word rejoice. St. Paul in Philippians states, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice, for the Lord is near.” So on the 3rd Sunday and all week long, we light a pink candle. On the 4th Sunday we are back to the purple candle. There are blessings for the Advent wreath to make it truly a sacramental.
In our family we light the Advent candle, then sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” followed by saying grace before meals. On Gaudete Sunday we switch to singing, “The King of Glory Comes, The Nation Rejoices.” On the 1st Sunday of Advent, after our Advent candle is lit, our hymn is sung, and meal eaten, the three kings — which have been previously hidden in three different locations to signify they have come from afar — are searched for by the children. After a mad scramble to see who can find one first, the children bring the kings together to follow the star toward the manger. After each meal, the Kings are moved closer to the manager to arrive on Christmas Eve.
Straws in the Crib
This is a wonderful Advent activity and very simple to do. Find a small box or some suitable container that acts as a manger. The straw to be put in can be actual straw, yellow yarn or ribbon. The idea is to fill the crib with “presents” for Baby Jesus. The presents are the sacrifices the children performed that day. One sacrifice ideas is to make an act of loving kindness to someone such as a classmate, a sibling, a grandparent. My 6-year-old granddaughter told me her act of loving kindness was to stop talking when the teacher told the class they were being too noisy.
She asked me if this was an act of kindness. Yes, I told her it was. Giving up dessert that day, clearing the dishes without being asked, allowing someone to go first or pick first are other examples. Children will get the idea and come up with their own suggestions. Only one straw per day; otherwise, our “manger” will be on overflow before the week is out. On Christmas morning, Baby Jesus will be found sleeping peacefully on the wonderful sacrifices the children have made to make room for him in their hearts.
The Saints of Advent
There are several saints who travel through Advent with us beginning with St. Barbara (Dec. 4), a martyr in the early Church. She was martyred because she had great resolve in keeping her faith, and this makes her the perfect saint to invoke to help us keep our Advent holy. A fun Advent craft would be to make a symbol for each saint to put on the Christmas tree. Lightning for St. Barbara (homework: look her up to find out why her symbol is lightning); Dec. 6, St. Nicholas (3 gold coins); Dec. 8, the Immaculate Conception (a baby in its mother’s womb); Dec. 9, St. Juan Diego (roses); and Dec. 13, St. Lucy (wreath with candles).
I might add St. Francis, although not in Advent, because he gave us the idea of the manger scene that most of us have in our homes. Poor St. Joseph usually gets left out in the cold. The head of the Holy Family, but the least of its members, he definitely needs to be on our tree (a staff with a lily). You may think of others. Visitors may be quizzed to find out if they know whom the symbols represent. Great fun for the children who of course know the answers. Not to forget a great chance to evangelize.
Some Other Advent Activities
- Visit a barn — since most modern children have never smelled a barn, the smell where Jesus was born. Great opening for discussion of the night when Jesus was born.
- Send a person in the military a Christmas card. My daughter, Anne, when she was 7 did this and she got a reply from young soldier touched by her thoughtfulness.
- Donate a coat, hat or gloves to a homeless shelter.
- Read a children’s book about the Jewish feast of Hanukkah which occurs during Advent. St. John tells us that Jesus went to the Temple on this day (also called the Feast of Dedication). This year the 1st night of Hanukkah coincides with the 1st Sunday in Advent. Check to see if there is a public lighting of the menorah in your area.
- Make a novena to the Infant Jesus.
- Encourage children to make gifts, especially for their grandparents. As a grandparent, I can vouch for their popularity!
One of my favorite Christmas movies is “The Bishop’s Wife.” The movie ends with a sermon, which begins with reminding us that under the Christmas tree we have gifts for everyone, that is for everyone except whose birthday we are celebrating. Let’s make sure we have a gift for the Infant Jesus with our Advent preparations for his birth.
Sandra McDevitt writes on Catholic Culture. She also hosts, “Stories From the Heart,” which can be heard on EWTN Radio on Saturdays and Sundays. Go to Ave Maria Radio Archives to listen to any of her over 1,000 stories. Sandra and husband John are the parents of five adult children and four grandchildren.