Catholic Activity: Living the Liturgy in the Home for Advent and Christmas
Here Mrs. Newland gives various suggestions for celebrating the liturgy within the home (namely, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany and the feasts within these seasons) to form your children in the truths of the faith. She includes such activities as the traditional Advent wreath, posters to express different themes throughout each of the three seasons, and decorations for the family Christmas tree.
The word Advent means The Coming, and this season of the liturgical cycle is meant to prepare us for a very real event that still lies ahead — the Second Coming of Christ in glory. Then we shall see Him face to face, as the shepherds saw Him in Bethlehem. All things will be restored to perfect harmony, right will be triumphant, goodness rewarded, evil conquered forever, and we will live eternally in resurrected bodies that are bright with God's own glory. Advent, we might say, is the season to prepare for that time when Christ will make all his greatest promises come true.
It may be a little disconcerting to be told all this at such a late date after having been led to believe that Advent is solely a preparation for Christmas. But this deeper understanding of the season need not rob us of our former Christmas joy. Indeed, the joy increases. Christmas becomes even more significant as the beginning of this great fulfillment. Epiphany extends beyond the event related in the gospels, in which God-made-Man is shown to the world as King, to the foreverness of His reign when His kingdom has come in all its fullness.
Still another Coming is emphasized in Advent, one which is every bit as real as the coming of Christ on the first Christmas and His Second Coming. This is His daily coming in the Mass and the sacraments, in grace as we go about our prayer and work during the day. He comes to us in our neighbor, who is the instrument of His will for us. And He comes to our neighbor through us, when we live God's life and make Christ present to him.
Advent is the time of preparing for eternity. Understanding this, the family can plan its own delightful program of customs, traditional or original, and make ready for the glory that is promised.
The Advent wreath, familiar everywhere, teaches many lessons. Its circle, which never ends, teaches us that God and the joy of eternity never end. Made of evergreen, which never changes, it reminds us that God's love never changes. The purple ribbons which decorate it recall the penance with which we must purify our hearts, and the candles with their light, which increases each week (one the first week, two the second, then three, four), tell us that Christ is the Light of the World; we must not be like the darkness which "grasped it not" (John 1:5). The prayers said with the lighting of the candles (perhaps at mealtime, or at evening prayers) are the Collects or Prayers of the Advent Sunday Masses, and they ask God to stir up in us a great desire for His Coming, to strengthen us so we shall be ready. The wreath can ornament a dinner or coffee table, a sideboard, or, if possible, can be hung by ribbons from a fixture in the ceiling.
The penances of Advent — certain self-denials, extra tasks, good works, alms, prayers — not only serve to purify us and strengthen our wills, but are a part of the offering of self which we will make to Christ at His great Christmas Mass, the celebration of His birthday.
Small children love to make Jesus a birthday present, and there is a delightful Advent custom which helps them visualize their efforts. Each day a wisp of straw or soft yarn can be placed in a tiny crib at the child's bedside or in a larger one for the whole family. On Christmas morning a little figure of the Child lying on the soft bed helps to show symbolically the usefulness of these gifts and Christ's pleasure in receiving them.
Older children enjoy preparing a series of posters for the family bulletin board to help explore the messages of the season. Colored construction paper, clippings from newspapers, magazines, headlines, words and letters, snapshots, maps — anything that would serve in a montage arrangement can be used to illustrate the different Comings.
The principal theme, He Will Come, is the subject of the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent. Its text is full of suggestions: the terror of the unprepared, the longing of those who are ready, signs of Christ in the sun, the moon, the sky, the symbolism of the fig tree, many more. "When these things begin to take place, stand erect, lift up your heads, for your deliverance is at hand" (Luke 21:28).
The theme He Comes can be illustrated with symbols and figures related to the Mass and the sacraments, pictures of those to whom He comes sacramentally and those who still do not know Him, and so forth.
A third poster might be Out of Israel He Came. It would show richly decorated, colored paper figures of Adam, Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Isaia, Moses, Elizabeth, Zachary, John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph. The liturgy for the season provides the stories and prayers to go with these names.
A fourth poster for Christmas, He Came, would combine both modern and traditional Nativity scenes with photographs of contemporary "madonnas" from the mission magazines, and texts from the Christmas Masses.
A fifth poster, Thy Kingdom Come, could celebrate the Epiphany with pictures recalling many of the earthly kingdoms of the past and present, the Magi, ourselves. One might also include symbols of Christ and the New Jerusalem, and the quotation: "Behold, I make all things new!" from the great vision of the new heaven and new earth (Apocalypse 21:5).
The feasts of the Advent saints also help to teach the lessons of the season. The feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, is a marvelous opportunity to point out that the reason for Christmas is neither St. Nicholas nor Santa Claus — if we happen to call him that — but rather God's desire to begin the work of our redemption as a Child born in a stable at Bethlehem. This lesson can be taught with a simple puppet show (hand puppets are easily made from socks) and emphasized with special treats. Following the Dutch custom, children might put out their shoes or hang their stockings from the mantel on the vigil of this feast, and, if they have been good, find in them the next morning St. Nicholas cookies. Children who have been naughty get straw — a gentle reminder that Advent is a time to strive hard to be very good so that we will be ready for Jesus when He comes. (We can testify from experience in our own family that straw for a child who has been truly naughty has never done any harm, but rather has proved a salutary lesson always.)
December 8 is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a beautiful story to be read in preparation for Our Lady's feast-day Mass is taken from the book of Judges. Gedeon, chosen by God to save his people from the Madianites, asked for a sign that the calling was true. Let the fleece he would put down on the threshing floor be filled with dew, he asked, and the threshing floor be dry; and in the morning it was so. Again he asked a sign. Let the fleece be dry and the threshing floor be wet; and again it was so (Judges 6:36-40). The Fathers of the early Church have pointed to this episode as a type — a prefiguration — of Our Lady's great privilege as the first one to be born filled with God's life after the Fall.
Nowhere on the face of the earth was there another creature whose soul was "full of grace." The Church Fathers further pointed out that because she accepted God's will for her, she became an instrument of restoring God's life to all men through her Son. This was foretold in the second episode when all the earth about the fleece was filled with dew. The great Mass of the Immaculate Conception is a thanksgiving in honor of Our Lady, the human parent of the state of grace — God's life in us.
St. Lucy (December 13) reminds us that Christ is the Light of the world because her name comes from the Latin word for light — lux. The Swedish custom of choosing a "St. Lucy" from the girls in the family is easily adapted, with "Lucy" serving a special feast day dessert decorated with St. Lucy's lights, and telling the family how well prepared the saint was when it was time to die a virgin martyr for Christ. Her story is largely legend, though ancient, but the existence of this great saint from Syracuse, on Sicily, is beyond a doubt, and her Mass gives us a beautiful prayer to be read at table or night prayers.
The feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, December 21, who said he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he could see Christ, reminds us to pray for the grace to see the whole significance of Christmas — beyond the presents and fun and decorations. This feast is to remind us of God's plan to win men back as His sons, of our own obligation to help Him with this work now that we are "other Christs," and that every act and deed must contribute to the peace that Christ wants to give all men.
Decorations for the Christmas tree, itself a symbol of the tree of life, can be made from paper or cookie dough, with simple patterns designed for the "O" antiphons. The "O" antiphons are the introductory verses taken from the Divine Office for the last seven days before Christmas. They call out to Christ in words of the Old Testament, bidding Him hurry and come. We can use the "O" antiphons with our night prayers during this last week of Advent. Symbols for them might be as follows:
O Wisdom — a triangle for the Trinity, eternal seat of wisdom.
O Adonai — a flame for the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.
O Root of Jesse — a simple flower recalling that Jesus is the son of David, son of Jesse.
O Key of David — a key, for Christ, the key to salvation.
O Rising Dawn — a sun with flames for Christ, sun of justice.
O King of the Gentiles — a crown to show Christ is king of all men.
O Emmanuel — a manger, because Emmanuel means God-with-us.
The symbols may be cut from construction paper (double-thickness for sturdiness), decorated with paint, ink, or glitter, and hung from the tree by a thread. They will provide a rich conversation piece during all the Christmas season. The cookies may be cut from paper patterns in the different shapes, or the symbols may be painted with vegetable coloring (as above) on round cookies, in which a hole is cut before baking. After serving as Christmas tree decorations, they are eventually eaten. And this could recall the spirit of the psalmist when he wrote: "Taste and see how good the Lord is." (Psalm 33:9).
The week after Christmas is filled with feasts. St. Stephen's day is December 26, when it is traditional to read his story from the Acts of the Apostles (Ch. 6 and 7) and give gifts to the poor. St. John the Evangelist comes December 27, when a hot spiced punch or cider is served to recall the legend that St. John drank poisoned wine but did not die.
On New Year's Day, the Octave of Christmas, formerly called the feast of the Circumcision, the family might write out its resolutions for the coming year and put them away in a sealed envelope, to be examined next New Year's Eve, just to see . . .
On the feast of the Holy Name we renew our resolution never to offend God by the abuse of His name, and we use Psalm 8, in praise of God's name, for our prayers that night.
With January 6 comes Epiphany. Knowing well now the significance of this great showing forth of the King of all kings, we act out the lesson. The little children dress as the Magi and bear their gaily wrapped gifts (the invisible penances of Advent) to "Bethlehem," represented by the family creche under the tree. They meet Herod on the way, hear the scribes read the prophecy about the newborn King of the Jews (from the Mass for the day), and after delivering their gifts and promising Him their loyalty, end their evening with a party — crown cake, gumdrop jewels and all.
Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany — the great seasons of longing and joy.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!
It is impossible to do away with all the irrelevant and commercial aspects of the pre-Christmas season. I will think these over carefully and initiate discussions among the members of my family which will help us to keep them in their place, "baptizing" activities or ideas that might enrich our preparation for the feast, trying to withdraw tactfully from others (such as parties, entertainment, etc., not appropriate to Advent). If I cannot withdraw from these events entirely, I will attend for the sake of courtesy to my host, explaining to my family why this is necessary and pointing out the relation between the spirit of the season and my obligation in charity toward my neighbor who may not understand the season.
When there is opportunity, and without being presumptuous or "preachy," I will try to introduce ideas about the appropriate observance of the Advent and Christmas seasons, understanding that it is hard for people to change their old way of thinking and that the critical approach is fruitless. Gentleness and tact are of prime importance.
Our family will discuss the possibility of entertaining during the Christmas-Epiphany season with a party which will celebrate the joy of these feasts. This might become an annual family tradition.
Activity Source: Homemade Christians by Mary Reed Newland, George A. Pflaum, Dayton, Ohio, 1964