How to Prepare for the Beautiful Season of Advent
Though Advent bears the dawn of a new liturgical season every year, most of us dismiss it as a period of celebrating Christmas before Christmas arrives. We adorn our homes with Christmas lights, decorated trees, tinsel and holly, festive tunes, and the like. All the while, the intent of Advent – a season of waiting, of silent but joyful expectation – falls by the wayside or perhaps into the din of our premature festivities.
To the world, Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving. If you’re a retailer, it’s even sooner – likely right after Halloween. And somehow we as Catholics have bought into the early celebration of Christmas, while neglecting to prepare our hearts and homes for the birth of Jesus and as a reminder of His second coming.
The world does not like to wait, and we are not unlike the world in this matter. To many, waiting implies a passive state, in which we must act as observers or stand on the sidelines while the real action story happens around us. But Advent reminds us that we must slow down – watch and wait, be vigilant – instead of passively wait in a sleepy state of mind.
In Latin, Advent means “coming.” We know that it is a period of four weeks, during which we prepare for the Christmas season, but we don’t necessarily consider how Jesus might be born in us, in our hearts. Here are some ways we can make Advent a sacred time of expectant faith, so that we may welcome Christmas Day with overabundant joy.
Make Advent similar to Lent.
A priest during Confession once told me that Advent is really supposed to be a lot like Lent. In other words, we are supposed to increase our sacrifices, almsgiving, and prayer life. Startled, I realized no one had ever explained Advent quite this way in my catechetical upbringing. After much thought, I realized that, yes, I should be returning to a place of spiritual growth rather than hasty celebration.
Advent provides us with the opportunity to give more of ourselves. While Lent conjures images of ashes and dust, Advent reminds us that sacrificial giving can be done in a spirit of light and hope. Though we aren’t required to fast and abstain, as we do during Lent, we can – and should – use the opportunity that Advent supplies us to increase our donations, rediscover how our prayer life can be rejuvenated, and even perhaps give something up for Jesus.
Wait to decorate for Christmas. Decorate for Advent instead.
Instead of donning ornaments and tinsel on our Christmas trees, why not decorate for Advent instead? Most of us are familiar with Advent wreaths, which are conducive to added prayer and reflection with our families each day, but there are other creative ways to prepare for the High Feast of Christmas.
Set up a Nativity without placing baby Jesus in the manger. Have your kids participate in this activity. They will be excited each day about the anticipation of Jesus’ birthday.
Another similar kids’ activity is to make a sacrifice manger. Kids take a basket or cardboard box and use strands of yarn to place in the manger when they are “caught” doing something kind for Jesus (which usually translates into something unexpectedly thoughtful for a sibling, neighbor, or parent).
Advent calendars are a fun way to anticipate the countdown to Christmas. Instead of purchasing a chocolate, disposable “Advent” calendar, why not purchase – or make – one that has a spiritual theme to it? I made one with 24 small boxes. Inside each box, we write suggestions on what we can do for Jesus – a small sacrifice, a helping hand, a smile, writing a kind note, etc. Each day, we draw a suggestion and discuss how we accomplished that goal during dinner time.
There are countless books that can assist us in preparation for Advent, too. Sometimes these are helpful when we aren’t sure how or where to begin in changing our lives, so that we might welcome Christmas in the right frame of mind. One of my new favorites is Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta: Daily Meditations by Heidi Hess Saxton.
Find new ways to give.
We are all familiar with the red buckets and Salvation Army bell ringers, and we may be inclined to put some pocket change in the bucket as we exit our favorite retailer. But why not get creative when it comes to almsgiving? Giving might mean donating our time to help out the homebound by running some errands for them – or even helping them decorate or make their favorite cookies. It might mean spending some time serving food at the local soup kitchen or food pantry. Pray about it. Discuss it as a family. The Holy Spirit will inspire you to know what will draw you nearer to Jesus and increase your sense of selfless generosity.
My oldest daughter, Felicity, recently mentioned, “Mom, I don’t really need anything for Christmas. I might ask for a candy cane and magnifying glass, but I’d like to help the poor.” We brainstormed ways she could do this. She decided she would go through her toys and donate the ones in good condition that she doesn’t play with much anymore. She also wanted to give all of her change in her piggy bank toward a charitable cause. This is one of countless creative ways you can make Advent a truly joyful season.
Reconsider the purpose of winter.
For some of us, Advent occurs during the darkest, coldest time of the year. This can be a true challenge when we are holed up inside a cramped house for days, or even weeks, without fresh air amidst nature. I live in northern Indiana, which is always snowy, slushy, icy, and often gray and dreary during December and January. It occurred to me last year that I might want to ponder the beauty and purpose of winter. What I learned changed my perspective and boosted by sense of joyful anticipation during Advent.
Winter is a season of latency, dormancy. We might be inclined to equate it with a period of nothingness – no growth, no new life, no signs of beauty. In the northern states, we might go outside for a brisk winter’s walk and not hear a songbird or even the rustle of common neighborhood animals, such as squirrels or rabbits. Silence and darkness enshroud us. It can be a cause of despondency or despair.
But that’s why Advent reminds us that waiting is purposeful if we do so actively, rather than passively. Winter has its purpose of encasing the tiniest seeds under the womb of earth, nestled in the warmth of the snow blanket. We cannot see the growth, but if we hasten spring, the seed will not germinate and sprout. The same is true for our souls. We should not hasten Christmas, merely because the world does in its secular way. We must be patient and allow God to work on us through the times of spiritual aridity and periods of desert waiting.
Use winter as a time to rest and reflect. Advent is the ideal way to jumpstart such important aspects of balance. Busyness is the world’s solution to passivity, but God reminds us through the cycle of seasons that resting makes us more aware of His presence and silence allows us to hear His whispers in our hearts.