It's Not Too Late: Three Steps to a Successful Advent
The same thing that makes Advent wonderful often makes it terrible: preparation for Christmas. This is because, inevitably, we prepare for two Christmases. First, there is the spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming in grace and glory through the celebration of his coming in time. Second, there is the material preparation for all that is expected of us in the course of this celebration. How can we keep the one from interfering with the other?
No matter how hard we try, we cannot eliminate this interference altogether. Dealing effectively with such interference is part of what it means to be in but not of the world. Nonetheless, the key to a successful Advent is the ability to keep one’s spiritual focus so that all the other cares and bothers are imbued with, and motivated by, a proper Advent spirituality.
In honor of the Holy Trinity, let’s take a three-step approach. Here are the three most important things you can do to make your Advent more successful this year:
1. Focus with the Church
The most effective way to improve Advent is to increase our spiritual focus. The simplest way to do this is to take time at the beginning of each day to review the Scripture readings used by the Church at Mass. These readings will reacquaint you with the events, prophecies, foreshadowings and symbols of salvation history, which point ever more clearly to Our Lord’s coming in time, in grace and in glory.
Ideally you’ll attend Mass most days, but we can often be distracted while the lector reads on, so you’ll be wise to make a point of reviewing the readings quietly at home in any case. Using either a missal which contains the readings or a missalette which tells you where to find them in your Bible, you can draw something from each day’s texts to use as the spiritual focus for that day. You may wish to read them again at the end of the day as well.
By taking advantage of the readings in this way, you’ll increase your grasp of Advent spirituality—both your understanding of it and your ability to apply it to all you do. You’ll be better able to make your decisions in light of this gift of Christ’s threefold coming. You’ll be less prone to run off on wild tangents or hurry down dead ends. And you’ll increase your habit of thinking with the Church, which is a key step in developing a richer Catholic life.
2. Change Old for New
Many of us have inherited or adopted a number of patterns in Advent which have nothing to do with the season. For example, some of us will be well into the long run of “Christmas” parties long before the season of Christmas even arrives. Others may be preoccupied with shopping for presents for too many people, most of whom will be no better off because of the gifts. Still others may devote ferocious energy to every sort of decoration and display, much of which has no spiritual theme or purpose. These are the traps of preparing more for the mere celebration of Christmas than for the coming of Christ.
Each year we should prune away some of those activities and concerns which are purely secular, and substitute things more spiritually beneficial. This begins with a recognition that Advent is not a time for consumerism and celebration but of spiritual growth. We should avoid misplaced parties whenever reasonably possible. This alone might allow much-needed time for prayer. If we are sending cards, we should make sure that they are spiritual cards. If we are cleaning and baking and shopping for people who really have little or no need of our efforts, we should take some time for genuinely charitable activity instead.
Most of us did not inherit the seasonal practices of a Christian culture. For this reason, we need to examine our Advent preparations to eliminate the silly and the secular in favor of those practices which better preserve that spiritual focus which should be our primary concern. Everything needs a makeover: our personal thoughts and practices, our family customs, the activities we engage in at work, the organizations we’re part of, and our daily, weekly and monthly priorities. Examining how we spend our time and energy in Advent is a natural outgrowth of the true meaning of the season. Fill in the valleys; level the mountains; make a straight path for Our Lord.
3. Simplify the Season
Everyone’s case is different, but most of us try to do too much during Advent. In fact, many of us try to do too much all year round. Instead of enabling us to focus our minds and hearts, our labor-saving devices and modern efficiencies tend to encourage us to cram more in until we’re stretched too thin. To some degree, we choose this sort of life unconsciously as part of our own secret flight from God. What would we do with inactivity? How can we bear silence?
Because of the pressure of the coming Christmas season, however, in Advent we often have a legitimate excuse. There really is a great deal to do. The solution is to get this under control. It is not only a matter of substituting what is spiritually meaningful for what is inane or worthless. Rather, we simply need to cut back. Fewer cards, fewer presents, less shopping, less baking, fewer social events and school activities, less committee work, a reduced appointment schedule, less time on the phone, fewer errands and trips to and from nearly everywhere: eliminate, eliminate, eliminate!
The plain fact is that we generally spend a disproportionate amount of time fulfilling obligations we’ve adopted without thinking them through carefully and in a spiritually mature way. We need to learn to say “No” without feeling guilty. We need to stop identifying success with frenetic activity, or with seeing and being seen. And even in the best sense we need to stop acting like Martha at times when Our Lord yearns to have us behave more like Mary. All this comes from having our priorities in order. And when they are in order, we’ll almost always cut back. Moreover, we’ll find ways to cut back which actually enhance the fulfillment of the central obligations of our state in life.
Don’t Kid Yourself
This three-step program, if you work on it year by year, will gradually transform not only Advent but your whole life. Nonetheless, there is one more secret you need to know: You’ll still feel a little stressed by the time you get to Christmas. No matter how selectively you prepare for Christmas, these preparations are meant to be significant for both soul and body. It follows as night follows day that these significant preparations will have to be done for the most part on top of everything else.
But you don’t need to be as stressed as you are now, nor as spiritually unproductive, nor as empty when it is all over. You can focus with the Church, you can change the old for the new, and you can simplify the season. If you do, you’ll end up knowing exactly why you’re just a little bit stressed. You’ll have it all in perspective. You’ll be better for it. And so will all those whose Christmases you make bright.
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