In the early years of our marriage, David and I, like many young, Catholic newlyweds, put a lot of thought into how we would celebrate each liturgical season with our new family. Advent was one time that we wanted to make especially memorable for our children.
One year, when our oldest was maybe five, I was browsing the Advent and Christmas section of a religious bookstore and came across a small cardboard book entitled, “The ABCs of Advent.” Inside were instructions for a personalized Advent calendar, Scripture verses and a prayer for each day.
According to the book, “A” was for angel. “B” stood for Bethlehem. And so on. The idea was to cut out pictures from old Christmas cards to illustrate each of the ABCs. Each night of Advent the children would tape one picture onto a large, homemade, cardboard calendar. The family would pray the prayers and read the readings. This little invention turned out to be a huge success with our bunch of preschoolers.
As the children grew we added other activities. We kept as tradition what worked and ditched the things that didn’t. Here are a few ideas. Take what works for you.
Start with confession. When I’m planning a graduation or birthday party, one of the first things I do as the day approaches is clean house. If I’m going to have guests over, I simply have to have tidy rooms and clean windows. If Advent is preparation for Christ, then the first order of the day is to be spiritually clean. This means starting with a good examination of conscience, followed by appropriate contrition, a trip to confession and resolution not to repeat the sins. Taking the family to confession together is a great way to kick off Advent. If you’re like me you might want to follow up with ice cream or another enjoyable treat. If your kids are grown, make a confession “date” with your spouse. Receiving the sacraments together is another way to keep your marriage strong.
Get out the wreath. If you don’t have an Advent wreath yet, it’s not too late to get one. These can be as simple as woven pine branches or as elaborate as a store-bought ceramic one.
Evergreens, the traditional material of Advent wreaths, symbolize continuous life — they are ever green. The shape of the wreath is a circle. It has no beginning and no end. This reminds us of God who always was, always will be and always remains the same. It also represents everlasting life which we will have with Christ if we die in the state of grace.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. The three purple candles represent prayer, penance and sacrifices which help us prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.
The rose candle, lit on the third Sunday, is symbolic of rejoicing because Jesus is near. Of course the lit flames on the candles remind us of Jesus himself — the light of the world.
Remind your children of these meanings when you take out your wreath each year. Repetition is critical if they are to commit these things to memory and pass on the faith to their children. Start a tradition of reading a prayer and lighting the candle each Sunday after dinner. Take turns or draw names to determine who gets the honor each week.
Check out the bulletin. Every parish has a different schedule for various penance and prayer services during Advent. Get those dates down on the calendar so you will have a real chance of making it to at least some of them. Private prayer is nice but the church is a community. Pray together with your family, and others, at your parish. The best preparation for Advent is Mass.
Integrate some Advent activities into your day. Don’t go overboard on this. It’s easy to be swept away by elaborate plans. Making homemade Nativity sets from toilet paper rolls with the children, baking a gingerbread crèche and hand decorating an Advent wall hanging of multicolored felt might seem fun at the onset, but can easily become overwhelming amidst the effort towards spiritual focus and general busyness of the season. Pace yourself. Find one or two crafts or activities to do with the kids and stick to them. The Internet and a visit to the local Catholic bookstore are all you need to find ideas and directions for Advent crafts.
Chill out. Advent is a busy time of year: Meetings at the church, choral concerts, confession, shopping, baking. Make the time to find silence and peace in the clamoring of the busy world. Treat your family to a Gregorian chant CD to use as background music some Sunday afternoon. Say “no” to the distractions you really don’t need. Silence your heart so you will be open to God’s will in preparing you for Christmas. Peace.
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