– Fr Leonard E Dollentas
It was the Sunday after Christmas at St Mary’s Church. Father John was in his usual morning routine of looking around the church. When he went inside the church, he glanced towards the altar and the nativity scene, admiring them with all devotion when he noticed that the Baby Jesus was missing from the scene. Immediately, Father John turned towards the parish office to ask the parish staff about it. But as he was about to do so, he saw little Garry riding a new bike, and inside the small basket in front of the bike, was the little Baby Jesus. Father John walked up to Garry and said, “Well, Garry, where did you get the Baby Jesus?” Garry replied with all honesty, “I took him from the church, Father John.” “And why did you take him?” With a nervous smile, Garry said, “Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus. I told him if he would bring me a new bike for Christmas, I would give him a ride around the block with it. He just did, and I’m fulfilling my promise.”
It’s few weeks before Christmas and the atmosphere seems to bring us excitement more on account of the festivities, than its meaning in our life. The Church preludes Christmas with a season of preparation: Advent. The Sunday after the celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Catholic Church enters into this season of vigilance. It is the designated time to prepare the way of the Lord: “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 [John the Baptist’s] birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’” (CCC, no. 524).
For this reason, the Sunday morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours during Advent reminds us: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:11-12). This particular passage reminds us that in preparation for the coming of Christ, there is a need as well for repentance and conversion.
ADVENT, THE SEASON OF PREPARATION
We usually devote the time before Christmas busying ourselves: the glittering array of merry decorations from the end of September and consumer bargains distract us from the anticipation of Christ’s birth. If we look closely at the pre-Christmas decor and preparations – we are overwhelmed, but notice how devoid it is of the essential quality of Christmas. We are so entrenched in a consumerist culture that even the shadow of Christ is nowhere to be found in the occasion. Is Christmas becoming a corporate event? The Church placed the Advent season more suitably at the beginning of the liturgical calendar, for it is a season of spiritual preparation and fervent longing first, for the birth of Jesus Christ; second, for the coming of Christ in our lives through grace and in the Holy Eucharist; and lastly, for His second coming at the end of time.
Therefore, our preparations should have all these three facets of coming. We need to prepare our souls for Christmas, for Holy Communion, and for our last day on earth.
ADVENT AND PENANCE
We often think of Advent as a cheerful celebration and prelude to the merriments and delights of Christmas. This brings us to assume that the holy season of Advent is not associated with any sense of sacrifice. When we look closer at the preparation made by Mary and Joseph before the birth of Christ, we will recognize the spiritual and sacrificial significance of Advent. It may not bring us comfort to recall how the young Mary traveled across rough terrain on a donkey in her ninth month of pregnancy. Joseph was far from being thrilled, after knowing he would be the foster father of Jesus. He was probably frightful on how he can safely accompany his pregnant wife Mary to another city, knowing the full weight of responsibility he bears for the safe passage of his new family (Luke 2:4-6). Before the birth of Jesus, they have to endure the cold night during the winter season because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7). The reality of the significant celebration of the Advent season as preparation for Christmas, evokes images of sacrifice and humility. This is the reason why Advent has traditionally been known as a “little Lent.” We recall that Jesus Christ began his mission of salvation in the atmospheres of hardship, humiliation, and austerity.
Penance, therefore, is an essential part of a meaningful advent celebration. Though, the Western Church no longer has a set requirement for fasting during Advent, other forms of penance and sacrifices, such as prayer and almsgiving, help to purify our hearts and prepare us for the real celebration of Christmas (CCC no. 1434). We are especially encouraged by the Church to participate at the weekday masses during Advent, because in the Eucharist we find the source and goal of our advent preparation: Christ Himself, whose sacrifice reconciles us with God (CCC no. 1436; Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 29).
There are various ways in which we and our families can live the season of Advent and Christmas meaningfully. I visited once a parishioner’s family before Christmas. During the meal the mother was explaining to me how they teach their little children the meaning of preparing for Christmas. They encourage them to do some acts of service, sacrifice, or kindness in honor of Baby Jesus as a birthday present, and for every act done the child receives a piece of straw to be placed into the manger. Then, on Christmas morning the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger, on a comfortable bed that was made through their good deeds. In the process, they explain Christ’s unparalleled self-gift at Christmas that enables us to be saved and to be part of God’s family, and He is happy to be born again in our hearts that we have prepared for Him.
PRACTICAL WAYS FOR A MEANINGFUL ADVENT
As we make our way through Advent this year let us focus on Christ’s genuine presence in our souls. Let us turn toward Him in anticipation of His coming in Glory.
Here are some practical ways for a meaningful preparation during the Advent season: Re-order your life’s priorities. Redirect your steps away from the aimless crowd of consumerism, in a world busy with its own priorities, where spiritual concerns are insignificant. Add more time to your prayer life, and take time away from other activities such as too much T.V. time, social network updating, computer games, the internet, shopping etc. Start the Advent tradition with your family. Pray together as a family, decorate your home with Advent themes. Use the advent wreath and prayers before meals. Make plans to attend your parish activities during the Advent season, especially the penitential services and Advent retreat. Invite your friends to come along. Spend the Christmas time together as a family with prayers, attending the Mass and sharing happy meals together.