The Spirit of Advent: Listening to Christ
Even before the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, the new Liturgical Year begins. The First Sunday of Advent is this Sunday, November 29. It is a little difficult to transition from Thanksgiving into Advent; I am still putting away the table decorations, restoring our downstairs and cleaning up from our large family get-together. It doesn't feel like there there was any time to rest before going into Advent mode.
Advent provides a new beginning. We are resolving to start the New Liturgical Year with enthusiasm and renewed commitment. But often there is too much emphasis on the externals. The feeling of needing to create some new family activity or display can burden and distract us. Advent is the season of preparation, but it is an internal and spiritual preparation compared to the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas. As parents we provide some external means to bring the spiritual message of Advent home. These allow our children to help grow interiorly. They are only an aid, and they shouldn't take center stage. It’s not necessary to have new, exciting, creative activities for every Advent.
Following cues from the Church and Her Liturgy we can discover how to keep the right spirit of Advent, remembering that we don't always need new traditions, but always need to be ready to let Christ be the Teacher.
What Is the Focus of Advent?
A friend of mine and I were talking about how we cringe when we read that slogan “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Yes, Christmas is about Jesus, but there’s so much more than just remembering Christ’s birth at Bethlehem.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the character of Advent is on Christ, but focus is on both His comings:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: "He must increase, but I must decrease” (CCC, #524)
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy elaborates that making present the ancient awaiting and coming of Christ in His first coming and preparing for the Second Coming of Christ manifests itself into a threefold focus:
96. Advent is a time of waiting, conversion and of hope:
- waiting-memory of the first, humble coming of the Lord in our mortal flesh; waiting-supplication for his final, glorious coming as Lord of History and universal Judge;
- conversion, to which the Liturgy at this time often refers quoting the prophets, especially John the Baptist, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 3,2);
- joyful hope that the salvation already accomplished by Christ (cf. Rm 8, 24-25) and the reality of grace in the world, will mature and reach their fulness, thereby granting us what is promised by faith, and "we shall become like him for we shall see him as he really is" (John 3,2).
So many of the family Advent traditions follow the spirit of waiting, conversion and hope. The spirit of waiting is echoed through the Advent Calendar, the Advent Wreath and the O Antiphons. The tradition of Straws in the Crib or Manger and added works of piety and good deeds cover the conversion of hearts. A spirit of hope is echoed in the celebration of Marian feasts and saint days throughout Lent, such as the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Nicholas and St. Lucy. We are consoled by their success stories; they have shared a saintly example illustrating how to get to heaven. Mary and the saints are also are powerful intercessors for us on our pilgrim journey on earth.
The Jesse Tree echoes the waiting and the hope, focusing on types of Christ or family members in His genealogy that were waiting and hoping for the Messiah. Above all, following the Church's liturgy for Advent for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours provides richness for contemplation in the spirit of waiting, conversion and hope.
Repeating Liturgical Cycle
We mothers burden ourselves unnecessarily at times. Perhaps because social media are full of fabulous images and ideas for spectacular Advent ideas we feel it is necessary to provide novel activities every Advent. To ease that burden, we should follow the example of the repeating Church’s liturgy and calendar. As finite humans we cannot absorb the full meaning of God and our faith even within a lifetime, so the reoccurring annual liturgical year is an opportunity to grow every year. Father Virgil Michel captures this importance of the repeated liturgical cycle:
[I]t is admirably in harmony with our human nature that the liturgical cycle is repeated year after year, just as the divine sacrifice is repeated in the Church day after day. As we are unable to exhaust our capacity for the Divine in a day or a year, the Church of Christ, with the infinite patience and the tender love of her divine Founder, continues to present to us the divine means of living Christ, thereby truly fulfilling her mission of achieving the ever increasing plenitude of the Redeemer.
It is for this reason that the recurring daily and annual cycles of the liturgy never grow old for those who enter into their participation with the understanding and love of their divine Head. Ancient as the hills, the liturgy is still ever new, it has ever a new store of the divine life to hold out to our grasp, and with the recurring years the realization of its meaning grows ever richer….
Now the eternal mysteries of God cannot really change fundamentally. To have recourse to them regularly should therefore be equally tiresome, were it not for the fact of their inner spiritual vitality, of the divine efficacy in them. If they realize their purpose one year, their possibilities have not all been exhausted; they have in fact been enhanced, for their inner divine efficacy is infinite, and its realization grows in proportion to the participation already entered into wholeheartedly. As they recur the next year, they will find in us an increased capacity for realizing them, and will thus year after year produce a continued growth in the intimate possession of the Christ-life. They build up stone upon stone in the human temple of God, wherever one enters truly into the living spirit of the annual liturgical celebration of the redemptive mysteries. The growth which can thus be developed by the help of the ecclesiastical cycle of the liturgy is endless; it admits of continuous increase; it is truly a divine light that with increasing years opens ever new vistas to the spiritual eye of the soul (The Liturgy of the Church: According to the Roman Rite, Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., Ph.D, pp. 91-94).
Christ, the Liturgy and the Liturgical year do not change, but we do. Every year we should be growing spiritually, increasing our capacity in love for Christ and His Church. As we begin another Liturgical cycle, the readings and Mass and externals have not changed, but we are looking and listening with new ears and new eyes. One year later our ability to grow in faith should have changed; that is where the “novelty” enters.
Family traditions are similar. The traditions don’t necessarily change, but people do. The family grows, and all the members have aged one year, so traditions are seen from another perspective.
Perhaps it is the lack of sanguine temperament in the members of my family, but our family thrives on traditions. We love that sense of security and sameness as we return to the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Our family will repeat the traditions as the backdrop of Advent. Each family member is a year older. We are aiming to view the traditions with slightly different eyes, ears and heart, hopefully all being open to Christ.
Christ Living in the Word and Liturgy
Since my children are older (8 and 12), the one approach that will be a little different this Advent will be inviting them to read more from liturgical sources for more inner reflection. My sons will have their own copies of December Magnificat to read the Mass readings and prayers of the day, and perhaps praying together the abbreviated Morning and Evening prayers several days a week. They can draw from the richness in the liturgy with the Messianic prophecies, the waiting for the Messiah, the Gospel narratives of the Incarnation, Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist and other infancy narratives.
Christ speaks to us and is living and present in the Liturgy and the Word. Pius XII in Mediator Dei explains that the Liturgy "...is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church." Dei Verbum states that: "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body."
The purpose of all the Liturgical Year traditions within our Domestic Church has been to bring the Liturgy into the Home and Christ into our hearts. When my children were younger we found more physical ways to find ways to express certain feasts and mysteries of the Faith. Through all the different expressions the aim is to allow Christ to be the Teacher through His Word and Liturgy; the traditions are just an instrument.
As parents this can be our New Liturgical Year's resolution: step aside and take a listening stance with our children. We can all sit at the feet of Christ and listen to Him. We have been given another Liturgical Cycle to go wider in our love and understanding of the mysteries of Faith. Let us enter this season of preparation with Christ through His Liturgy and His Word and learn how to live a spirit of waiting, conversion and hope.
For further reading, see my previous posts on Advent:
- The End and the Beginning: The Cycle of the Liturgical Year
- Taking Stock: Advent Wreath and Candles
- Collect-ing for Advent
- Straws in the Manger -- Preparing Our Hearts for Christ's Birth
- Living Advent Simply with Food and Family
- The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Advent
- Rejoice the Lord is Near: Gaudete Sunday, Ember Days and O Antiphons
- Advent Feast: Our Lady of Guadalupe
- Recognizing the True St. Nicholas
- Celebrating St. Nicholas: New Picture Book Review
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