Advent Activities: Advent Means Christlessness

Advent is hard to make sense of.

Lent you can understand — you're supposed to give something up, imitating Christ in the desert and preparing yourself for Christ on the cross. Good Friday puts a fitting exclamation point on your weeks of sacrifice. Then comes Easter.

Christmas doesn't have that same trajectory.

Lent is also easier to handle because society-at-large hasn't maxed out its efforts to distract you during Lent. Yes, there are Easter bunnies and jelly beans at the drugstore. But you aren't bombarded with invitations to Easter parties on Good Friday, and there is no muzak version of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today …” playing in the supermarket while you search for fish sticks on Friday afternoons.

We have no such luxury during Advent. Throughout Advent, Christmas is “in the air,” you're supposed to be getting “the Christmas spirit” — and even your Catholic newspaper is printing Christmas gift guides, like this one.

And even if it wasn't “beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” we would probably be asking: What the heck is Advent all about, anyway?

We know that it's a penitential season, but only a brave few people have ever successfully given something up for Advent like they do during Lent. We know that it is a combination of expectation for Christmas, expectation for the second coming, and also some sort of a John the Baptist thing. Whatever it is, it sounds confusing, like it was thrown into the Church calendar as an afterthought because it felt like there should be something there to justify all the cheer coming later on.

Well, after delving more deeply into what the Church wants us to do, there are a couple of important things we learned about Advent that have helped change our attitude about it.

Think of Advent like you think about Good Friday evening and Holy Saturday.

That's when the tabernacle is empty and there's really no big event to celebrate. There's just an emptiness and a waiting. But it's a profound emptiness. It's a profound waiting.

That's because it's a very specific emptiness — it's Christ-lessness. Your parish church is bizarre and creepy with the open tabernacle and the covered statues and the snuffed candles. And this reminds you how bizarre and creepy life is without Christ.

And it's a very specific waiting. It's waiting for normalcy to return, for the universe to be right-side-up again. It's waiting for Christ-lessness to end. It's a waiting for Christ. It's Advent!

The Vatican's Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy Principles and Guidelines puts it succinctly:

“Advent is a time of waiting, conversion and of hope,” it says (No. 96).

It's a time of waiting in memory of the first waiting for the Lord, but also a reminder that we still wait in anticipation of the second coming. It's a time of conversion, because we don't just wait for God to do something, we get ready for his coming. And it's a time of hope: We can compare the straits that we find the world in now to where the world was in history, and remember that God hasn't abandoned us. Help is on his way.

Focusing on this Christlessness is extremely important for us, and for our children. Not only should they know Old Testament stories, they should know that there was a radical shift before and after Christ.

To anchor these feelings, the Church presents us with the persons of John the Baptist and Mary. He's the last of the prophets, calling people to conversion. She's the Advent woman, pregnant with hope.

In the time before Christ, there wasn't just a different set of religious practices and a wild cast of odd characters — there was a restlessness in the people of God because something important was missing. Some one important, as it turned out. From the time Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden to the time of John the Baptist there was a great disconnect between man and God that both man and God longed to bridge.

The other thing the Church points us to in Advent is to the bridge that brought the two together, Mary.

It's providential that the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe fall in Advent. It gives us an opportunity to focus on Mary, who is the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and of New Testament hopes, both at once.

How to teach this to kids?

The Vatican lists many ways Catholics do this. We have tried many of them, but usually are pretty poor on the follow-through.

On the previous page, see sources for the common Advent practices. We do many of them, with greater or lesser success. The important thing isn't the activities; it's communicating to the children the difficulty of a world without Christ.

We have one unique Advent practice, though. As the culture pushes Christmas earlier and earlier, our children have a hard time fighting against it. Push attempts to be penitential at Advent, and you may spark a revolt!

We have our own battles over this. Tom loves to put the Christmas tree up early. April has continually fought against this. So, we have compromised and we now put it up about halfway through Advent, on the Sunday when the priests wear pink — Gaudete Sunday — a Sunday dedicated to joy.

We put a gift box under it that looks like a Christmas present, but with a removable lid. Each morning we pray: “We want to make Christmas last all year. So, each morning we kneel beside the Christmas tree with Jesus. He has gifts for each of us under the tree.”

Then we open the box and each of us picks one of the gifts. They are slips of paper with writing on them.

We pray: “This morning, I humbly accept the gifts you have given me, Jesus. Thank you for my time, my things, my abilities and my family. During this day, please help me find ways I can give each of these gifts back to you, by giving them to others.”

Then each person reads his gifts and the action underneath.

Another thing that we do — and that all Register readers can do — is pass on the National Catholic Register's Advent guides to others.

At the end of the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul II asked the Church to promote four things during the Jubilee Year: Sunday Mass, confession, prayer and community service. And ever since he asked, the Register has been publishing “How-to” guides that we can give to people who are interested.

The trick is to do it in a natural way. If someone asks how your weekend was, you can say, “Great. We didn't do much — but we went to Sunday Mass.” Then offer some of what you appreciate about Mass. If the person is interested in hearing more, you have a nice, low-pressure way of responding: a Register Advent guide to Mass.

The same kind of casual conversation can go in any direction you like: “I went to confession. Some people don't like to go, but I don't understand that. It's great.”

At any rate, whether we have children or no, it's up to us to preserve Advent and make it a time of preparation, conversion and hope.

We started out by saying that Advent — unlike Lent — is hard to grasp, and that it seems almost an afterthought. Well, after you spend some time thinking about it, perhaps the reason Advent is shorter and less emphasized is because it is more obvious.

We know what it's like to await a birth. We also know what it's like to feel that God is far away as we hope that he'll soon be very near.

Advent lets us go deeper into both those feelings, and fulfills them with the true hope of Christ. It's a gift the Church gives us to be able to pull back the reins on the materialism of the gift-giving season and focus on the ultimate meaning of our very presence here on earth.

Tom and April Hoopes are the editorial directors of Faith & Family magazine.

Advent Gifts

See story above about how to use this list of Advent gifts.

God gave me the gift of food, shelter and clothing. Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Little kids — not complaining between meals.

2. Big kids — offering up a sacrifice during a meal.

3. Adults — setting aside food to give away.

God gave me the gift of my family.Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Playing nicely with a sibling.

2. Complimenting each of my family members.

3. Spending some special time with kids.

God gave me the gift of my faith.Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Saying a Hail Mary at the Advent Wreath.

2. Writing a letter to Jesus to put in the manger.

3. Meditating on the Gospel.

God gave me the gift of my health.Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Offering up a special treat.

2. Offering up dessert or T.V.

3. Offering a sacrifice.

God gave me the gift of my country and peace. Today I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Praying for our troops.

2. Writing a letter to a soldier.

3. Reading a history story about sacrifice to kids.

God gave me the gift of my community. Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Playing fire-fighter or police.

2. Saying thank you to my teacher.

3. Bringing food or clothing to a drop-off.

God gave me the gift of priests and consecrated people. Today, I will give that gift back to him by:

1. Learning what priests do for us.

2. Writing to a priest or a consecrated person.

3. Writing to a priest or a consecrated person.