As we came near Advent once again, I found myself preparing my students for this liturgical season. I told them that it’s not just “the time leading up to Christmas,” as if it were a mere counting down the days until the Day. The etymology of the word Advent is illustrative: ad means “to,” or “towards,” and venire means “to come.” Hence, Advent is about Someone who is to come to us – it is the season of preparation for the Coming of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Following my in-class discussions, and drawing from family traditions, I would like to suggest four ways to make your own family’s Advent more fruitful.
Talk with your family about what it means to prepare for something
One image that I propose to my students is getting ready for a party. (‘Granny is turning 95. Let’s celebrate!) Prior to the celebration, there is much work to do – cooking, cleaning, shopping, inviting – and it would be neglectful to have the party without the preparatory time first. Even more so, it would be unfitting to dig into the cake before Granny gets there.
Now, admittedly, some may find this waiting-and-not-celebrating mode a difficult balance to strike before Christmas. Yet there are ways to do it, that make for a fine compromise. Some may choose to decorate the house first with greenery, but no lights, to begin Advent. And though one sees trees being brought home on car-top on Thanksgiving Saturday, some families wait until later for getting and setting up the tree. Even then, anticipation can still be gained with waiting to decorate the tree, even until Christmas Eve . . . not officially lighting it up until after attending Holy Mass for Christmas.
And don’t forget the Advent wreath. Local tree-selling lots may let you have a trunkful of cuttings for free – even without buying your tree there. Take some home and weave a wreath for the table centerpiece, get some beautiful candles, and light the wreath at each family meal.
Have a special time of Advent prayer with your family
My family turns off the lights in a room (actually, the children like to make the entire lower level of the house dark), and the father brings in one lighted candle in a sconce. Even young children can sense the feelings of waiting and longing, that one lone candle can evoke. We may read from the Scriptures, whether the prophecies of the Old Testament, the preaching of the Baptist, or the passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which lead up to Our Lord’s birth. Night prayers may be said at this time. As an excellent aid in focusing one’s heart, mind, and soul is song, it is good to begin and end with hymns!
Sing Advent Hymns
The mood of Advent, that of joyful expectation, is clearly seen in those songs which belong properly to the season. The most well-known may be O Come O Come Emmanuel; yet also apply your family’s voices to: The King Shall Come, Gabriel’s Message, and Savior of the Nations Come. (Those songs are available on Openhymnal.org here: download, print, and sing!)
Think of these three comings of Our Lord
The obvious way in which Christ comes to us, following Advent, is in the great Feast of Christmas. Yet, hearing the readings and Gospels at the beginning of Advent, one realizes the Church first calls our attention not to the Child’s humble beginnings, but to our own ends. For, Our Lord shall come at the end of our lives, and again, at the end of time – and He shall come as a just judge. Let us take time in prayer to prepare ourselves to be worthy of that final meeting. Advent is a good time to go to Confession, and a most-worthy time to help your children prepare a gift for Our Lord.
The empty manger, waiting, is an apt symbol. Some families will keep a small wooden manger in a child-friendly place, with pieces of straw, or bits of yarn, to the side. Each time a good deed is done, or a sacrifice made, a straw is placed to soften the Christ-child’s rest. Most important is the rest within; help your children to imagine their own hearts as a manger, and to prepare it for the Christ Child – especially to look forward to making a resting place for Him when they receive Him in Holy Communion on Christmas Day. What a fitting conclusion to one’s season of preparation: finally being united to the one for whom we have been waiting and anticipating with joy.