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Catholic Activity: Advent Penances

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Now, there is the all-important matter of a birthday gift for the Light of the World. If there are to be gifts for others, there must first be a gift for Him. It is His birthday, not ours, and what kind of birthday is it when all the gifts go to the wrong people? What kind of gift would He like? Also included is the story of "The Juggler of Our Lady."

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Next, there is the all-important matter of a birthday gift for the Light of the World. If there are to be gifts for others, there must first be a gift for Him. It is His birthday, not ours; and what kind of birthday is it when all the gifts go to the wrong people? What kind of gift would He like?

There is a story to tell at the beginning of Advent, about someone who had nothing to give. It illustrates best of all for children how the intangible is to God the most tangible, and makes entirely reasonable to them a scale of values one would suppose far over their heads. The story is Le Jongleur de Notre Dame — The Juggler of Our Lady. It is as old as old, but each time it is told it seems more beautiful.

It is about a monk who had no great talents, who could not illuminate manuscripts or write music or sing songs or paint pictures or compose prayers or do any of the dozens of things the other monks were preparing to do in honor of the Mother of God and her newborn Son. So he made his way to the crypt below the main altar of his abbey church, and there before her statue he humbly confessed that he had nothing to give. Unless . . . but of course. He had been a tumbler and a juggler in the world. Long ago. He had been a rather brilliant tumbler and juggler, if the truth were known. Might she like to see him juggle and tumble? She was young and gay. She had laughed and clapped her hands. Surely her Child had. Perhaps he could tumble for them, all alone in secret? That is what he would do: give her the only thing he had to give. He would display his talent for the honor and glory of God and the entertainment of the Queen of Heaven.

So he removed his habit down to his tunic and then he danced. And he leaped and he tumbled and he juggled in the most inspired fashion until finally he fell in a swoon at the feet of his Lady. And while he lay there limp and wet from his efforts, senseless as though he were dead, she stepped down from her pedestal and tenderly wiped the sweat from his brow and sweetly considered the love he had put into this performance for her and her dear Son's sake.

And this happened every day.

Now there was another monk there who began to notice that the tumbler came not to Matins and kept watch on him because "he blamed him greatly." So he followed closely the movements of the tumbler. One day he followed behind him and carefully hid himself in the recesses of the crypt and witnessed the whole performance. So profoundly was he impressed and inspired that he hied himself straight to the abbot, who prayed God would let him too witness this wonder of dancing and juggling for the Mother of God. And he did see not only the dancing and the juggling and the leaping and the capers but also the Queen of Heaven, in the company of angels and archangels, come down and with her own white mantle fan her minstrel and minister to him with much sweetness.

When it came to pass that the abbot made it known to the minstrel that he had been seen — poor minstrel! He fell to his knees to beg forgiveness and plead with them not to send him out from the monastery. Which of course they did not do but held him in high esteem until the day he died; and there about his bedside they saw the Mother of God and the angels of Heaven receive his soul and carry it to everlasting glory.

"Think you now that God would have prized his service if that he had not loved Him? By no means, however much he tumbled. . . . God asks not for gold or for silver but only for true love in the hearts of men, and this one loved God truly. And because of this, God prized his services."

This, then, is the pattern for the gift: it must be a giving of self.

Our children usually give Him their desserts and treats during Advent except on Sundays, the two feasts, and the two birthdays that we celebrate with special festivities. These days they give Him something else instead. They try to give more willingly than before their bumps and hurts, and (this really hurts) their will in such matters as being first, sitting by the window in the car, licking the bowl, doing the dishes without being asked, or doing homework first instead of last.

No funnies (especially no Sunday funnies) makes a beautiful gift for the funnies and comic-book addicts, and no radio for the radio fans. No TV is an excruciatingly difficult gift to make but more beautiful for its being difficult; and the Christ Child has a way of giving back more than you have given Him.

These gifts of self-denial are not quite so hard when you see that you are accomplishing something. Gift boxes chosen at the beginning of Advent receive a bean for each day of enduring self-denial. On Christmas Eve these are wrapped in gay paper and ribbon and put under the tree to await the feast of Epiphany. Another custom is to make a tiny cradle for the Christ Child; a piece of hay or soft yellow yarn or a shred of finely cut tissue paper for each daily self-denial makes Him a soft bed to lie on. Salt boxes, match boxes, corn-meal boxes, lined and covered with pretty papers, make lovely cradles. Then on Christmas morning, to their great delight, the children find a tiny Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes contentedly lying on this soft bed they have so arduously made for Him.

Going without TV, radio, or these other things, need not be so difficult as it appears to be — not if we make good substitutes for them. It is far more satisfying to make, to do, to act, to sing, yourself, than it is to watch someone else do it. It is a fundamental part of emotional security and self-confidence to know that you are able to do something in your own special way. Many parents worry about the tendency of children to sit vegetating in front of TV sets, becoming by avocation a perpetual audience, but cannot quite discover the secret to shutting off the set and contenting the children without it. Creative activity is one answer. Taking advantage of the great penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, not only to encourage self-denial but also to explore the spiritual meanings of these seasons with creative activities, is almost certain to bear fruit.

Ultimately we must insist on times of quiet, away from the manufactured entertainments of this world, in order to form the habit of recollection. We are supposed to be contemplatives according to the capacity God has given us — which means that we see the world, ourselves, and all that is created, in the right relation to God and that we think on these things often with love. Whether we will end up "contemplatives" in cloisters or as contemplatives who are farmers, writers, bus drivers, policemen, dancers, whatever — in order to grow we must be reaching constantly to God with our minds. We need quiet for the very least of this, for the beginning of meditation. Parents can begin the process for their children with quiet times of creating and conversation together. That is what these conversations are — family meditations. Making a Christ candle during Advent can be such a project and can be, for a child, the beginning of learning how to meditate.

Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956

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