by Posie McPhee
The timelessness of Advent strikes me anew as we approach this holy season. In the cycle of our Church year we touch every other Advent we've ever known, every Advent the Church has known, and even that first long advent humankind shared between the Fall of Man and the Incarnation. Somehow we touch eternity as we enter this season of anticipation, repentance, hope, and joy.
Advent is really threefold in nature, encompassing all time, - past, present, and future. Most obviously, we celebrate Christ's coming in the past: "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1: 14) .
He who has no limits enclosed himself in human flesh, and embraced all the suffering which this entailed. Our hearts are filled with thanksgiving for this great act of love. . . a tiny Babe who chose a simple cave to be born in. He showed us that poverty isn't a bad word, and it isn't to be shunned. Why would God Himself choose it, unless it were a blessed state? Saint Francis referred to it as Lady Poverty, and we can learn from him to welcome her, embrace her, and become holy from our friendship with her.
Most Christians are aware of the historical aspect of Christmas, but Advent's spiritual dimension in the present can be lost in the many secular distractions which bombard us. One way of avoiding a lot of the 'hype', is to put away the T.V. (if you have one) during Advent. It is amazing how much easier it is to make Advent holy. It has been an accepted tradition in the Church to fast and make sacrifices during this season of preparation, so perhaps we could make it a standard practice to sacrifice viewing time.
This is the time that we prepare our hearts anew to allow Christ's grace to enter more deeply into our souls, as we open ourselves to His continuing work of transformation in us. I believe that God gives us the grace to discover areas that we were not aware of before, which are in need of His healing and forgiveness. It is a time of repentance. It is a time to draw nearer to Him, especially in the sacraments, and to give Him every opportunity to work in us. It is a time to wait with Mary, to learn to see with her eyes, listen with her ears, touch with her hands, and love with her heart. Advent is her season as well, for He chose to hide Himself within her pure and radiant body during that first momentous Advent.
The third element of Advent is often ignored, although it is rooted in the tra ditions of the Church, and is very noticeably present in the Liturgy. This is the future aspect- the anticipation and waiting for Christ's final Coming. As we strive to amend our lives, we remember to "Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come." (Mark 13: 33). We are called to live as if He were to arrive today, and to be always ready for the final judgement. For many people this is just too grim, but we should recall that Christ's final coming will be a glorious joyful and exultant reunion. .
One way to focus on these three elements of Advent is to meditate on the scriptural readings of the day. If we are unable to attend daily Mass, we could pray the Divine Office, for those readings can increase our awareness of Advent's deepest meanings. Another way of making Advent a time of real anticipation is to avoid singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. Properly, we should sing carols throughout the Christmas season, not the Advent season. There are many beautiful Advent songs to sing during the time of waiting, and having to wait for something makes the actual event so much more exciting. We can also refrain from sweets until then, for it is fasting which adds the greatest flavour to feasting. We mustn't forget that the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve, but it lasts until Epiphany.
We can make celebrations more meaningful, exciting, joyous, and fun for our children and ourselves. Because we have physical bodies, and experience much of life in this world through the senses, we are called to enflesh our wor ship. Our Church has always known this: after all, Jesus chose to come to us in the simple form of bread and wine, to enter our body as well as our souls. Church buildings and liturgy also reflect this profound respect for the senses. Vestments, statues, stained glass windows, song, gestures, incense - all these elements work together to help us experience God with our whole beings, to help us to offer ourselves body, mind and soul to Him.
So too in our Domestic Church we can learn from the Church at large, and bring our celebrations into the sensory world, according to the ages and understanding of family members. I find this to be a wonderfully creative challenge. There are just so many possibilities waiting to be tried. I am constantly watching and listening for ideas from other people, as well as learning simply from my own life experience. It doesn't necessarily have to have been done before; it is so exciting to take the traditions and teachings of our Church and incarnate them in original ways in our family.
When I think of ways to celebrate our Church Year I continually try to bear in mind the different senses:
Taste is very important, and there are many different traditional, international foods which can be used for seasonal celebrations. The children love to help in their preparation . It's so important to include them in preparations even if it takes twice as long, and makes twice as much mess!
Hearing is important in receiving information, and music is an especially powerful medium in lifting the soul to God. "He who sings, prays twice," St. Augustine said. Music appeals to the emotions, which are a valid and important part of the human being. Our children learn to appreciate inspired music by hearing it, just as they increase their vocabulary by reading books that we might think are beyond them.
Smell is more subtle. We don't always notice the affect it has on us. Have you ever had the experience of a memory from long ago childhood being recalled by a scent which you had completely forgotten? The sense of smell, of course, is quite connected to our taste; the smell of the Christmas bread baking in the oven brings joy and anticipation as well as memory of the taste. The smell of the Christmas tree when it is first brought in, the smell of candles burning, these things remain with us, and memories are evoked each time we experience them.
Sight and touch are also closely connected. Children always want to touch what they see, to experience it more fully. We must try to provide this experience of touch for our children. There are so many things they aren't allowed to touch, for their own safety, or for the protection of valued breakable objects. But we can make things with our hands, props for our celebration home; banners, pictures, written out scripture verses, or quotes from the saints, carved statues or crucifixes, puppets, costumes, calendars, etc.
One idea which has added so much to our Advent and Christmas celebrations is our children's creche, which is made for children to play with. There are many different patterns, Fridge Art will soon include one to make out of fabric.
My heart sings when I watch my little ones reenact the Christmas story over and over again during Advent and Christmas. Sometimes they really let their imaginations go, and they play with the figures as if they were bringing them into their own lives. I remember trying to hide my smile as I listened to them taking the Holy Family to a basketball game!
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