Celebrating Advent Right

How to faithfully celebrate the season before Christmas.

Festive flurry is ahead: running from mall to mall; putting up Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. That’s just part of pre-Christmas activities, right?

Not according to Pope Benedict XVI. Last year he said, “Is it not true that activities often absorb us and that society with its multiple interests monopolizes our attention? Is it not true that we devote a lot of time to entertainment and to various kinds of amusement? At times we get carried away. Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us signs of the attention he has for each one of us.”

Taking the Pope’s words to heart, families have a great opportunity to restore the meaning and observance of Advent and re-educate the younger generations to live the true Catholic spirit of these weeks.

“This is where our Catholic faith should radiate brightly,” says Edward Sri, reflecting on Advent’s meaning. He is provost and professor of theology at the Augustine Institute and author of Dawn of the Messiah: The Coming of Christ in Scripture (Servant, 2005).

Awaiting Christ

The world starts celebrating secular Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, but for Catholics, these weeks leading up to Advent are about preparing for Christ. Sri points out that during the four weeks of Advent “we enter into the 4,000 years of humanity waiting and longing for Christ.”

While there’s nothing wrong with preparing the house and getting the food for the feast, “when that becomes dominant and distracting,” he says, “that’s a sign we’re being swept away by the expectations of this world for the season as opposed to living in the heart of the Church.”

The Church teaches that Advent celebrates three comings of Christ.

The Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy refers to the first as “waiting memory.” For example, lighting the Advent wreath’s four candles “is a recollection of the various stages of salvation history prior to Christ’s coming and a symbol of the prophetic light gradually illuminating the long night prior to the rising of the Sun of justice” (96-98). The other things to remember: present conversion and hope.

Yearning for the Messiah, we’re also preparing our own hearts for his coming to us anew every Christmas by grace, notes Sri.

Explained the Pope: “Advent invites and stimulates us to contemplate the Lord present. … Let us experience intensely the present in which we already receive the gifts of the Lord; let us live it focused on the future, a future charged with hope.”

Preparing for Christmas

So, how can families observe Advent?

As Benedict noted, “Advent is the season of the presence and expectation of the eternal. For this very reason, it is in a particular way a period of joy. … This joy, invisibly present within us, encourages us to journey on with confidence. A model and support of this deep joy is the Virgin Mary, through whom we were given the Infant Jesus.”

This holy, joyful expectation should prompt us to offer sacrifices, do extra devotions and good deeds, give up some things, make visits to the chapel and read Scripture.

“With all these things, we’re entering into that expectation and longing of Israel for its Savior,” says Sri. “We long for Jesus to come anew in our hearts during Christmas and long for him to come again.”

Sri and his wife, Elizabeth, have several ways they live the Advent season with their six children (the oldest is 10), all centering on spiritual preparation for Jesus’ coming. They put up their Christmas tree right before Christmas, and they don’t listen to Christmas songs until Christmas Day. Instead, “we do a lot of beautiful Advent hymns to help us imagine what it was like for those ancient Israelites longing for their King, their Messiah to come,” Sri says. The family sings them before every evening meal and before they go to sleep.

There are no sweets in the Sri house during Advent, but “there are moments during the Advent season we do have sweets and celebration geared around getting ready for Christmas”: St. Nicholas’ Day and the neighborhood posadas, a door-to-door procession like Mary and Joseph did looking for shelter. The last “innkeeper” lets everyone in for food and hot chocolate.

During Advent the family displays an empty manger. The children put a little straw inside with every sacrifice they make to prepare the manger for Jesus when he comes at Christmas. It gives the children a tangible way to see the fruit of their sacrifices.

Similarly, the Sri children become “Advent angels.” Each Sunday evening they’re assigned one sibling to do kind deeds for — in secret — for the week. Sri says it’s fun for the children to guess the identity of their secret angel.

Families can make available books that only come out during the season — books with beautiful pictures and stories about Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the Magi.

The Sri family also recites the “O Antiphons,” which the Church uses Dec. 17-23, dedicating each day to a biblical title of Christ: O Emmanuel, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Wisdom, and so on. They sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” up to the theme the antiphon emphasizes that particular day.

“There’s a lot of joyful expectation alongside the spiritual preparation and penance,” Sri says. While the secular world tires of Christmas by Dec. 26, families who celebrate Advent find, as the Sri family does, “in the Catholic perspective, Christmas is just getting started.” That joy intensifies as they next celebrate the 12 days of Christmas with prayer, songs and gifts.

Father Thomas Cook, pastor of St. James Church in St. James, Minn., is pleased to see families observe Advent in these ways: “This is how the kids learn; they are immersed in it. This is what we hope for all our families.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

The Augustine Institute has a free Advent CD available: “Advent Reflections,” by Scripture scholar Tim Gray. Call (303) 937-4420. The Sri family has enjoyed reading Mary Reed Newland’s The Year & Our Children: Catholic Family Celebrations for Every Season (Sophia Institute, 2007).