Thoughts on Advent

Thoughts on Advent


Sam Rocha writes about the home as a domestic church, whose rituals echo the mystagogy of the liturgy:

If our home is a “domestic church,” then it should look, sound, and feel like a church, especially if we live with children. Why? Because churches are decorated and arranged for more than ornamental purposes. The pictures, colors, structure, style, and order of a church are all deeply catechetical. The images teach and show. The form of the rituals are the curriculum for lessons that go unstated. The homily is but a supplement to the vestments worn, the songs sung, and the intentional, repetitive order of it all. Liturgy is educational in the deepest sense.

This is not just pedagogy; this is mystagogy.

The season of Advent may be the most educationally significant liturgical period, for countercultural reasons. Since no one else seems to observe Advent these days — including many Catholics — the domestic church that celebrates this season stands out, teaching an additional lesson about the radical exception of the Gospel. We are not of this world. We prepare for Incarnation. We do not skip over the need to wait.

If you care about catechizing your children, then the most powerful tool at your disposal right now, and always, is the mystagogy of the liturgy. The only necessity is fidelity. How faithful is your domestic church to the imagery, sounds, and themes of your Church? The answer will measure the educational efficacy of your curriculum.

His ideas echo mine, though I think that you have to use a light touch in thinking of how your home looks, feels, smells like a church. The fact is, the home is still a home and the rituals we follow, the prayers we pray, the art we contemplate have to fit in with the rest of the mess of daily life. I’m also not really a fan of the empty tree thing nor do I hang purple hangings all over my house. And while I play only Advent music at the beginning of Advent, I allow the Christmas music to start to creep in in the last week or so. And I recognize that Dom likes playing Christmas music year round and so what he plays is his choice. For me it’s a balancing act. Yes, I try to keep Advent as a season of preparation and Christmas as a season of celebration; but don’t freak out too much when some celebration happens during the waiting period.

My approach to Advent this year is going to be kind of like that in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas, in which the Austin family do one special thing each day to prepare for the coming of the Christ child. They hang one decoration, or bake cookies, or put up wreaths, or make a new ornament, or make Christmas cards. I I like the idea of pacing things so you aren’t having to do it all at once at the last second.

As romantic as the idea of the tree being bought and decorated on Christmas Eve is, it doesn’t work for me. It’s a nice idea, but when you’re pregnant or have a baby or a toddler– as I have been for each of our married Christmases, it’s too much. Too much to do in one day, too much to leave till the last minute. For me Christmas Eve is for getting ready for Midnight Mass, for cooking our Feast of Seven Fishes, for wrapping presents. Not for trimming the tree, Unless someone wants to send a crew of elves who can be trusted not to break all the ornaments.

I think you can put things out gradually and still maintain the idea of Advent as a season of suspense and gradually building anticipation to the glorious birth of the Child. So I think it’s ok to eat a few Christmas cookies. It’s also ok to abstain from cookies, to keep the fast so you can enjoy the feast all the more. To me the point is always preparing my heart.

And while our house is a domestic church, I think you can get too caught up in the churchy part of that and forget to make it homey. I don’t have an altar guild for my domestic church to swoop in and work a magic transformation in one night. Just me and a handful of very young kids and a husband who works long hours at times to keep a roof over our heads.

To me it’s like preparing for the birth of any baby. You get things ready: wash the clothes, set up the crib or bassinet, clean, buy supplies, make sure you have enough diapers, etc. A little bit at a time, as you have energy, as you find the odd moments here and there. And you also have baby showers, you throw parties and think about how wonderful it will be when the baby arrives. So I think it’s fine to attend your office Christmas party two weeks before Christmas, to go to the kids’ concerts and pageants, and the parish cookie swap and such. It’s ok to sing along to the Christmas carols at the store. You don’t have to curse the premature festivities. Just be glad that people are celebrating at all.

And I also think the pretend that Jesus isn’t here yet has to be balanced by the awareness that he is in fact already with us. Advent is a season of “already”/”not yet” in tension with each other. So is the Christian life. We celebrate always the awareness that Jesus is the Lord who has come, who is with us now, and whose coming again we constantly anticipate.

Father Philip Powell OP writes:

For the next few weeks, we wait on the Lord. We will wait for his arrival as the Christ Child at Christmas. And we will wait for his coming again as the Just Judge. The mystery of faith reveals that the coming of Christ as a child and his coming again as a judge are the same event. Though separated in time, these two historical events are eternally identical; that is, from all eternity, outside history/outside time, our redemption through Christ and our final judgment by Christ are accomplished simultaneously. At the moment of his birth, we are judged forgiven. The question for us is: do I receive his mercy and live accordingly; or do I reject his mercy and live as if he were never born? Advent is our special chance to live according to the just judgment of the one who died to free us from sin. With his birth less than a month away, we have the chance to put his judgment ahead of us, to locate it on a particular day and live toward that day, knowing that it is coming soon. Between now and then, Christ urges us to remember the Good News he came to deliver. He urges us to recall again that we are the beloved children of his Father. We are forgiven. All is forgiven. What we must do is receive His mercy and live as children of the light.

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So what am I doing?

First, an Advent wreath. I am very grateful to my parents who sent the Advent candles. They arrived the day after I thought to ask Dom to pick some up at the gift shop. I bought a wreath at Stop and Shop to put around them. It sort of takes up too much room on the table, but it sure is pretty. Sophie added a pine cone she’d picked up on one of our walks.

Second, I’m wrapping up our Christmas books and letting the kids open one a day. Well I forgot until Sunday night, so they had two to open on Monday. Anthony thought the one he unwrapped was his present and keeps referring to it as “my book.” Ben and Sophie also seem to think they are new books. I think Ben thought Santa was delivering them. (I’d just left them on the dining room table for them to find when they woke.) I haven’t wrapped them all. I’m just doing the one for tomorrow each night.

Third, I’m going to try to do this Advent chain, via Simcha. I ran out of black ink on Sunday, but now we’re back in business. Never too late is my motto.

And that’s pretty much it. I’ve got my Advent playlist and the Liturgy of the Hours.

And the imagination of my children.

Sophie, Anthony, and Bella were pretending to burn Ben at the stake.
Sophie, Anthony, and Bella were pretending to burn Ben at the stake.
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  • I loved your post on thanksgiving- we don’t observe it in NZ- and it reminded me of a quotation from Chesterton “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder”. Advent is such a season of wonder. I like the slow and steady approach too, as much preparing as waiting. I have the urge to clean and sort (spring clean here).
    I’ve made an Advent wreath using a bought grape vine round which I thread with evergreens from the garden. (I make a wreath for the door too but later so the evergreens are still fresh-ish at Christmas).
    We’ve had different wonderful Advent calendars over the years including one which becomes a model by Tomie daPaola. But the one my youngest son chose to reuse yet again has 24 little books. I cut down a branch of the macracarpa pine and he hangs each book on the tree, one a day, after reading them aloud to me. It becomes like a Jesse tree but much easier.
    Another thing we did for years was gather the stuffed toys to make our own Nativity. We dressed a special doll in a blue baby T-shirt and handkerchief veil as Mary. Paddington bear made a solemn chief shepherd- or occasionally, one of the three kings, and Tigger a fetching younger shepherd. The shepherds had wash cloths over their heads tied with string, like mini versions of our children’s make shift costumes for the Nativity play at church. We made gold wrapping paper crowns for the kings and they had decorative boxes from around the house to be gold, frankincense and myrrh. The manger was a wooden box, and attended by many stuffed animals, Eeyore in pride of place as the donkey, alongside foxes, puppies, lions etc. Props came from round the house and garden.
    I’ve also been enjoying finding Advent music. The wonders of the internet enable anyone to find hymns and carols that you’ve heard of but never known the tune. And I’ve been enjoying Christmas songs (thanks to a Patheos post- songs by atheists.) The spirit of the season is so strong that even when people voice their skepticism somehow hope or longing sneaks in eg Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, Tim Minchin’s White wine in the sun and The Killers’ Don’t shoot me Santa. (Those three songs would have an M rating).

    • Oh I love the idea of the stuffed animals’ Nativity. Maybe I’ll suggest that to the kids. We can have one with stuffed animals and another with the little figurines. Perhaps then it won’t bother them so much not to be able to play with the stable.

  • This is the first year that I’ve been able to pull myself together and do the Advent chain. My oldest is 13 and is usually working on his schoolwork when I remember to do it, so my 8 and 6 year old get to cut a link off and read it. Then we tape it on the dining room wall. Since we celebrate St Nicholas Day in a big way, we’ve been doing a craft from the St Nicholas Center website each day this week to lead up to that.

    We did an Advent calendar last year, a Playmobil one, but it wasn’t a huge hit and had so many chokable pieces, I decided to not do one again this year. The chain will suffice.

    The only other Advent tradition we do, aside from the Advent wreath, is the journey of the wise men. Every day they’re in a different spot in the house, traveling to Bethlehem (Mary and Joseph are waiting on the mantel for Jesus). Actually, the wise men won’t get to the manger until Epiphany, which is another big day here. Whoever spots the wise men first in the morning gets a small prize. We do three presents on St Nicholas Day, stockings only on Christmas, and three presents on Epiphany. We started this back when our oldest, whose patron saint is Nicholas, was a baby.

    • It might have been foolhardy, because I doubt I can keep it up. But I made a quick Jesse Tree out of craft paper this afternoon to put the ornaments from the Advent chain on. I figure even if I don’t read the Bible story to them, I can summarize the story a bit and they’re still getting more Bible knowledge that way.

      I forgot to mention that we will have chocolate from St Nicholas on Friday and Lucia bread next Friday.

      • Oh, my 8 year old will not let me forget about the Advent chain! We’ve been taking a link off after our morning lessons and he is always quick to volunteer to read the verses. He is my altar server and wanna-be future priest, so I suppose it is natural to him.

  • This is beautiful! I just rediscovered your blog, and I am so glad I did. I remember stumbling upon it years ago when I was in high school and trying to figure out if I wanted to go to the University of Dallas or not. Well, I remember reading some post you wrote, linked to a wonderful promotional video – and I ended up going to UD and loving it.

    Anyway, thanks for your beautiful words on trying to live Advent in a practical way. I look forward to reading more!

    God bless!