Advent: Beginning the New Liturgical Year
Similar to last year, Advent 2016 begins on the Sunday right after Thanksgiving. Applying the rule from Universal Norms of the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar:
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Advent begins with First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Sunday that falls on the closest to 30 November and it ends before First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of Christmas...
makes November 27 the earliest Advent can begin, and the latest it can begin is December 3. This season will be the longest Advent can be, with a full week for the Fourth Week of Advent. For those lighting candles daily for the Advent wreath, an extra purple candle or two might be needed to replace the candle from Week 1 and maybe even for Week 2.
New Beginnings: Mercy and Conversion
Advent starts the new Liturgical Year and can be seen as a another opportunity to spiritually begin anew. Holy Mother Church knows how many times we need to start again! There are particular themes in the Liturgy throughout Advent (as I quoted last year): a spirit of waiting, of conversion and joyful hope. These liturgical themes inspire what we do with the family or Domestic Church during Advent.
The Year of Mercy has just ended, but as Jeff Mirus pointed out, it was just a beginning; we are living what we learned this past year. The attitude of conversion continues and grows. The parable of the Loving Father to his Prodigal Son was used often during the Year of Mercy as an example of a spirit of conversion and it also applies to beginning again in Advent. St. Josemaría Escrivá sums up this Advent theme of conversion and mercy:
Human life is in some way a constant returning to our Father’s house. We return through contrition, through the conversion of heart which means a desire to change, a firm decision to improve our life and which, therefore, is expressed in sacrifice and self-giving. We return to our Father’s house by means of that sacrament of pardon in which, by confessing our sins, we put on Jesus Christ again and become his brothers, members of God’s family.
God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it. It doesn’t matter how great our debt is. Just like the prodigal son, all we have to do is open our heart, to be homesick for our Father’s house, to wonder at and rejoice in the gift which God makes us of being able to call ourselves his children, of really being his children, even though our response to him has been so poor (Christ is Passing By, no. 64).
My favorite quote from St. Josemaría continues this thought (emphasis mine):
If you should stray from him for any reason, react with the humility that will lead you to begin again and again; to play the role of the prodigal son every day, and even repeatedly during the twenty-four hours of the same day... (Friends of God, no. 214).
We are trying to live in Advent what we learned throughout the Year of Mercy. “Playing the role of the prodigal son” means pushing the restart button not just for this new liturgical year but every day, maybe even multiple times a day. The Advent season helps us hone this daily habit of conversion to keep us working for the ultimate purpose of our lives.
Another major theme of Advent is waiting. It is not idle waiting, but waiting in a spirit of preparation. Last year one of our parish priests gave a wonderful homily on the three ways we are waiting for the coming of Christ: in history, in mystery, and in majesty.
- In History: We recall the Old Testament waiting for the Son of God to be born at Bethlehem.
- In Mystery: We await Christ’s coming at Mass in the Eucharist and prepare for our reception of Him at Communion.
- In Majesty: Our true preparation of Advent is preparing our hearts for Christ for our final judgment at Parousia, the end of time “when God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
These are the three comings of Christ that we contemplate during Advent. So often the emphasis is placed on Christ at Bethlehem, but if we listen carefully to the Liturgy there are also many eschatological reminders, urging us to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. Our waiting involves preparedness, just like the Wise Bridesmaids in the parable. We need keep our eyes on the coming of Christ and not end up without extra lamp oil.
Applying at Home with Joyful Hope
December marks three months since changing our family’s education plan, and six months since my foot surgery. This is my first year not home educating; both my sons are in Catholic schools. I’m also working part-time as a CGS catechist in one of the schools and balancing my physical therapy appointments. These have been big transitions and adjustments, but we are successfully finding our new rhythms.
Although we have many family Advent traditions, I remind myself that while every year has similarities, it will also have differences. Applying St. Augustine terms, the liturgy is “ever ancient, ever new.” There is repetition, daily and annually. The liturgy does not change, but we do. Our reception should expand as we grow in our spiritual life. Within my family the dynamics can and will change. The children get older, commitments change, health varies, etc. In all the Catholic customs I implement in the home, I try to keep them at a minimum and open-ended so much of it can be child-led. I try to not direct most of the Advent practices, but leave room for my sons to make it their own, by research, contemplation and expansion.
As it is suggested in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, the Liturgy is the primary reference point for popular piety.
The popular devotions of the Christian people [...] should accord with the sacred Liturgy...[and] in some way derive from it, and lead people to it, since in fact the Liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them (Sacrosanctum Concilium, as quoted in Dir. Popular Piety, no. 58).
With that in mind, all our traditions hinge on following the Liturgy.
- Daily Podcasts on the Go: Now that I’m driving my sons daily to school, we utilize podcasts. In the morning we listen to the daily Mass readings from the USCCB. My youngest requested a podcast that would tell about the daily saint without being a homily and so our new addition is the Saint of the Day by Franciscan Radio. There are other podcasts that are short meditations that I will sometimes play in the afternoon, but I leave space for discussion and thinking about the readings. The past few weeks the readings have been from the Book of Revelation, which is such a colorful and action-packed book of the Bible. My sons were intently listening to all the details each morning and interesting conversations follow.
- Advent Music: Playing and singing Advent music is also another component that sometimes utilizes digital forms with CDs and iTunes. Just like Christmas carols, there are certain songs we only sing a few weeks out of the year. From the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to the cheery “People Look East,” we listen, sing and play Advent songs, always looking to learn new ones. The Advent at Ephesus cd by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles is an entire cd of Advent hymns that we enjoy. I have several Advent Gregorian chant CDs, and then we find isolated Advent hymns on some of the Christmas CDs. I’m not completely forbidding Christmas carols in Advent, but I do try to present a balanced presentation of music so we don’t get burned out on Christmas carols before it is actually Christmas.
- Counting the Days: The boys still enjoy having an Advent calendar. We have many varieties, from simple religious wall calendars to several Playmobil calendars. Last year I even found an allergy-safe chocolate calendar for my one son, so we had a chocolate calendar for each child for the first time. My favorites have been the traditional ones made in Germany, with short Biblical quotes for each window. My sons enjoy recognizing many of these verses from the liturgy and atrium, such as “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
- Preparing the Manger: We will have a modified version of our tradition of Straws in the Manger. I know with my sons getting older that there might not put the straws in the manger to mark their good deeds. They don’t need that physical reality. But the empty manger still is in a prominent place as a visual reminder of the spirit of Advent.
- Advent Wreath: The Advent wreath is probably the most central and favorite Advent practice of our family. We hang our wreath over the table and light it with prayers and singing every night before our dinner meal. The Advent Wreath is not liturgical, but it has become one of the most universal and recognizable Advent traditions.
- Jesse Tree: We have a very simple Jesse Tree that we set up, but this is one with minimal involvement from me, but room for my sons to look up the stories and read in the Holy Bible. I have been slow to expand this practice for many reasons, but I have decided to share a few posts on the Jesse Tree in the following weeks.
- O Antiphons: The final days of Advent from December 17-24 are known as the O Antiphons and they are my favorite part of Advent. We keep this very simple, also, but we all love marking those days.
- Advent Reading: When my children were younger we had many Advent and Christmas themed books that we would read throughout Advent and Christmas. This year I’m going to redouble my efforts with my younger one to make more time for reading our special books, and give one chapter book for my older son to read. He has less time due to homework, but this would be considered his “spiritual reading” just like his parents have.
I’m not worried if these Advent plans aren’t implemented on Day 1 of Advent, nor do I panic if we miss some days here and there. There are four full weeks or 28 days total for Advent, so we have plenty of time to spread around our traditions. Anything we do is not just for external satisfaction but to connect with the Liturgy and help with spiritual growth.
Following the final liturgical theme of Advent, we try to keep the spirit of joyful hope through all this season. At times it is difficult to keep that interior joy with the news from around the world. But we know all that has been accomplished by Christ for our salvation, 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) (Dir. Popular Piety, no. 97). There is nothing that should disturb our joy and destroy our hope.
The liturgy and our Advent acts of piety are constant reminders of God’s great plan of Redemption for us. May we always keep in our hearts a spirit of conversion, joyful hope and patient waiting during this season of Advent.
Come, Lord Jesus!
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