Preparing the Way: A Guide to Advent
COMMENTARY: Tips for Living Liturgically
On the evening we decorated our Christmas tree, my mom always spent what felt like hours arranging the strings of white lights. I waited with the same impatient anticipation I had experienced all of December as Christmas drew nearer. With a father who was a liturgical musician, my family followed the liturgical calendar precisely.
By the time we made it to the Christmas tree lot, late in Advent, there were very few trees left. We put up the tree as Andy Williams Christmas albums played on my great-grandmother’s console record player. But my favorite moment was Christmas morning, when my siblings and I would creep into the living room and find Baby Jesus in the crèche under the tree.
Advent has always been my favorite liturgical season — I have always been able to appreciate the melancholy waiting for something wonderful to come, something I know will come. I love to ponder what St. Bernard of Clairvaux talks about as the three comings of Christ: on the first Christmas Day, at the end of time and in our hearts.
But Catholics often wonder: How can we do this in a secular world that begins selling for Christmas at Halloween and decorating while still digesting Thanksgiving leftovers? For Catholics, this might mean entering into this penitential season by deliberately holding back from Christmas music and decorations and intentionally focusing on Advent as a four-week preparation time for Christmas.
This can look different for each family, but the important thing is that we are intentional about making Advent a distinct time of preparation for Christmas, both materially and spiritually.
Since Advent is a liturgical season, a good way to mark it is by following the liturgical calendar.
A common way to do this is with an Advent wreath.
Candles and simple wreaths are often available at Catholic stores, including at EWTNRC.com, or one could design a wreath with pillar candles, greenery and violet and rose ribbons.
Lighting the next candle each Sunday with family prayers, which are easily found online at https://bit.ly/3DRFQ5C, marks the progress of Advent.
My family loves to sing an Advent hymn with a lit wreath in a darkened room before dinner each night of Advent.
Another of my favorite family traditions is the Jesse Tree, which is named for Jesse, the father of King David, an ancestor of Jesus. Jesus was the long-awaited “shoot from the stump of Jesse” prophesied in Isaiah 11:10.
A Jesse Tree can be a small tree, or branch, a bare Christmas tree or anything that will hold ornaments.
The ornament for each day matches the special daily readings that usually start with the creation of the world and move forward through salvation history to the prophets and, finally, the Nativity stories of the Gospels. Many families also include ornaments for the O Antiphons that are traditionally prayed in the Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve.
One can also spiritually enrich Advent with private prayer.
Many Catholic publishers and ministries now offer an Advent prayer companion that can be used to focus on preparing spiritually for the coming of Christ (see resources at EWTNRC.com). Another simple way to do this is to pray with the daily and Sunday Mass readings for Advent, which give a profound look at the way the Lord prepared the world for the Incarnation.
Advent is full of significant feast days, such as St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. Many families choose to mark this day by talking about the true story of St. Nicholas, putting out shoes and filling them with small gifts, such as chocolate coins, socks, religious books and more. It can be as simple or complex as you would like.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, usually a holy day of obligation, is another important Advent feast, which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the gift of the Blessed Mother being conceived without original sin.
We also honor the Blessed Mother on Dec. 12, with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
This is followed by the feast of St. Lucy, which is a day that many families choose to turn on their Christmas lights, both indoor and out, since her name means “light.”
When it comes to Christmas decorations and music, there are many ways to emphasize Advent. My parents always had us wait until it was almost Christmas to do these Christmas things.
Since we spend a lot of the holidays with our relatives, my husband, children and I put our tree up on Gaudete Sunday as we joyfully anticipate Christmas. The children love to set up our crèche with the Three Wise Men figures journeying in the dining room and the Holy Family figures, with an expectant Blessed Mother, waiting on the other side of the room.
On Gaudete Sunday, we also preview our favorite Christmas music, taking a break from playing only Advent music as a rule until Christmas. There are many beautiful Advent songs available to listen to — more than just O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. One of my favorites is Gabriel’s Message. And even the radio plays many pre-Christmas Advent songs, such as Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and I’ll Be Home for Christmas, which all anticipate the day.
While there are many ways to wait in Advent, the most important thing is to preserve the true meaning of Christmas through it all.
Do not feel like you have to do “all of the Advent things.” Pick one or two of these spiritual practices that will help you and your family enter into new traditions and the liturgical celebration of Advent.
Remember, this busy season is about preparing for Christ’s coming into the world and making room for him in your family’s hearts.
- susanna spencer