10 Practical Ways to Celebrate Advent This Year
Though we have officially entered the third week of Advent with Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday, there are still nearly two weeks remaining before the Christmas season begins. I am always aghast that our world begins celebrating Christmas shortly after Halloween ends, and then on December 26, it’s as if the holiest of seasons has suddenly vanished. My dear Christian brothers and sisters, let us remember that Advent is such a beautiful gift for us, especially in this frenetically paced culture. Our Church reminds us to enter into the quietude, not only in the simplicity of our decorating and celebrations at Mass, but also into the solitude of our hearts.
Advent invites us to meditate on the profound mystery of the Incarnation, as well as the second coming of Christ. We ponder both the condescension of the God-man and the end. God has no beginning and no end, but we are mere mortals. Our end is a point of humility for us as we consider that our earthly life is not the be-all-end-all. There is so much more than the here and now. Therefore, Advent is a season of opportunity. We can enter into the depth of the mystery of silence and darkness that defines winter. Christ is the light for which we long during these endless months of night.
Despite the fact that Advent is halfway over, we can begin to enter into this season of simplicity and rest today. In fact, we do not have to cease the inward retreat once Advent ends and the Christmas festivities begin. Every day can be Advent in a sense, as long as we discipline ourselves to “retreat to the cell of our hearts” on a daily basis, as St. Alphonsus Liguori explained so beautifully.
Here are 10 practical ways to celebrate advent this year, starting today:
1. Use your Advent wreath as a time of daily prayer and reflection.
Some parishes offer free daily readings for the seasons of Advent and Lent. If your parish does this, consider using those short reflections for a daily gathering of your family for prayer around the Advent wreath. Little ones especially enjoy lighting the candles and counting how many are lit each week. This builds the suspenseful anticipation that defines this holy season.
2. Purchase an Advent devotional.
There are many on the market that are conducive to meditation. My personal favorites include publications by Magnificat and Sophia Institute Press, but I usually read a different Advent devotional every year. This year it’s Meditations for Advent by Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (Sophia, 2012) and “Welcoming Jesus: Advent Reflections by Pope Francis and Henri J. M. Nouwen” (All Saints Press, 2015). You can find a wealth of both digital and hard copies of these and other Advent reflection books online. You can also purchase "The Advent Story" written by Cora Evans.
3. Make a Jesse tree.
This is a fantastic family activity but can be done solo or as a couple, as well. The Jesse tree is a way to build both your knowledge base of the history of Jesus’s birth as well as the discipline of a daily activity. This differs from the secular version of an Advent calendar in that each day has an ornament with a Biblical image on it and a corresponding Scripture verse to read. Essentially you can craft a Jesse tree or purchase one online. Many Catholic companies offer kits that require minimal assembly and include every ornament and reading. Our family has a tabletop artificial tree, and we print out paper ornaments that our daughters color and cut out to place on the Jesse tree each day after we read the matching Scripture passages. You can also participate in Advent more fully by delving into God’s word and prepare to be deeply awed at the birth of our Savior on Christmas Day through this beloved devotion.
4. Sign up for a free devotional message or video.
There are a couple of really phenomenal apostolates that offer free Advent reflections for the modern Catholic in the form of short, inspirational videos and reflections. For example, you can sign up for Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Advent mailings, or visit Matthew Kelly’s Best Advent Ever from the Dynamic Catholic Institute. These are just two examples of ways you can still connect with your faith while you are on your daily commute or on your lunch break at work. These ministries also remind us that we truly can find the time for daily prayer, despite our increasingly busy lives.
5. Visit a Living Nativity.
Most communities have churches (not always Catholic) that offer a live portrait of the Holy Family on that first Christmas. Unlike a Christmas play or pageant, the Living Nativity will not have acting; rather, the people posing as Our Lady, St. Joseph, the shepherds, wise men (and usually even live animals) will simply sit silently with the Christ child, adoring Him in the solitude of darkness. It’s a beautiful way to put into perspective the gift of Jesus as an infant and to imagine what that first Christmas must have been like. Prepare your heart to give birth to Jesus by visiting a Living Nativity this Advent.
6. Get involved with a service activity.
We often consider Lent as a penitential season in which we become more involved with community service or volunteering at our parish in some capacity to help the less fortunate. However, Advent is actually also a penitential season (though a joyful one), and we are called to participate in similar ways to Lenten practices, such as almsgiving and sacrificial acts of charity.
Since this year is the Year of Mercy, why not pray about how God may be calling you to serve a person or group of people who are in need? There are countless organizations and charities that care for unique populations, from the disabled veterans to the homeless to single mothers. Finding a way to contribute your spiritual charisms in a way that is fruitful will be a magnificent gift this Advent, but it can also be incorporated into your life long-term.
7. Adopt a family for Christmas.
Every year it becomes increasingly difficult for our family to come up with gifts for our Christmas list, so a few years ago we decided to draw names for a simple gift and pool the rest of our money to adopt an entire family for Christmas. This is such a powerful act of charity that can honestly change your life (perhaps more than the receiving family’s life). One year I coordinated the items each person in our adopted family needed and wanted, and I collected and shopped for each gift. The day of delivery was one of the most profound experiences of my life, because we were met with the father of a young child who wept at our feet as we brought in a Christmas tree, decorated it, and left several wrapped gifts underneath it.
8. Celebrate Advent saints.
Some of the more popular saints’ feast days we celebrate during Advent include St. Nicholas and St. Lucy, but others include St. John Damascene, the Immaculate Conception, St. Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Damasus I, St. John of the Cross, St. Peter Canisius, and St. John of Kanty. A way to honor these saints is to read either an excerpt from something they wrote (many were prolific and published) or a biographical account, which can be found online. Even better, engage your children by having them dress up like a particular Advent saint or perhaps create a poster of the saint’s virtues and contributions to Church and society. Finally, find a novena prayer or organization in that saint’s name that will assist you in developing a deeper devotion to one or more of the saints listed. Then ask him or her to help you discover a meaningful Advent.
9. Put up a Christmas crib.
Many of us already place a Nativity scene, whether life-size or tabletop, during the Advent season. However, some people intentionally wait until the vigil of the Immaculate Conception to place the Christmas crib out as an intentional sign of waiting for Jesus. Additionally, some families with small children use this as a sacrifice manger, in which their children can add a piece of yarn or string each time he or she makes a sacrifice. On Christmas Day, the Christ-child is placed inside the crib.
10. Create images of O Antiphons and hang them up as decorations.
The O Antiphons are Scripture verses that are used during Mass in the seven days preceding Christmas Day. You can find O Antiphons online, print them out, and then have your children decorate them with craft embellishments. It’s a beautiful way to end your Advent and enter into the Christmas season with hearts full of joy and gratitude.
We celebrate more than the remembrance of Jesus’s literal birth during Christmas. Advent is a time set aside for us to prepare for Jesus to be conceived in our hearts so that He may be born in us on Christmas Day. St. Augustine of Hippo beautifully explains this time of preparation and waiting:
Prepare thus, Lord, what You are preparing;
For You are preparing us for Yourself
And Yourself for us,
You are preparing a place
Both for Yourself in us, and for us in You.