During Advent, To Reconcile All Things will feature a weekly reflection on preparing for the coming of our Lord, written by a young adult in the YCDM (Young Catholics of the Diocese of Des Moines) community.
The Season of Advent is here, which means we have entered the liturgical time set aside to prepare for the birth of Christ, our Lord and Savior. This preparing, however, differs vastly depending on who you ask or what your traditions are. Whether it be an Advent wreath, setting up a nativity scene, or an Advent calendar, our Church is rich with traditions for this season. Typically, however, if you ask someone how they are preparing for Christmas they will answer with a long list of gifts they have to buy, decorations they need to hang, parties they must attend, and food they need to make. Most of us spend the four weeks leading up to the Lord’s birth with our Christmas music blasting and our houses decked out in lights, stockings, and Santa Clauses. This preparation seems so necessary to us and so expected, that questioning it doesn’t seem natural. To sufficiently prepare for Christ’s ever-new Arrival, however, I would suggest we begin to question the way we see Advent.
The joy of Christmas is overwhelmingly wonderful. It leaves us full of love for those around us, hope for the upcoming year, and thanksgiving for all that is behind us. It gives us time with family and friends and allows us to spend precious moments with those people. All these feelings that come along with the Birth of Christ are good and should not be put down or diminished; after all we are a joyful people and need to show the joy of Christ to others. That said, we must ask if constant Christmas celebration is appropriate during Advent, a holy season of preparation.
Christmas season today seems to begin whenever Thanksgiving ends, and end on Dec. 26th. Come a day or two after Christmas, the tree hits the curb, the Christmas music stops playing on the radio, and we all switch gears to get ready for the new year. Yet as Catholics we know that the Christmas season is just beginning: in our Roman Rite Calendar, Christmas begins Dec. 25th and ends on the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord (typically 2-3 weeks after Christmas). So why do we end Christmas just as it is beginning? The answer seems to me quite simple: we’re burnt out. We have spent all of Advent so hyped up on Christmas spirit that we don’t have enough left to celebrate Christmas in its proper time.
Let’s face it, how many of us spend all of December celebrating, and by the time 3 p.m. Christmas day comes we are completely done with anything Christmas-related and just want to relax? Now, if Christmas was just a regular day of gift giving, this wouldn’t be an issue; the problem arises when we realize what we are actually celebrating. The Catholic Church does not recognize and celebrate holy days in order to give us the opportunity to give people gifts or to spend time with each other, but rather for us to praise and glorify God and thank Him for the gifts He has given us. If we remember that, maybe we will start to realize how our approach to Advent needs to change.
So back to the initial question, rephrased: what should we do to prepare for Christmas?
To answer this question it’s good to go back to the history of Advent. If we look to the early church, we find that Advent was treated a lot like Lent. According to the writings of the Venerable Prosper Guéranger, OSB, Abbot of Solesmes Abbey in the 1800s, in his massive work, The Liturgical Year, the Advent season was practiced as a fast as early as the 5th century. It was started as a practice by monks to fast three times a week from St. Martin of Tours’ feast day (November 11) until Christmas. This practice grew from monks to clergy to the laity, and eventually expanded from fasting three times a week to fasting for the whole 40 days, known as “St. Martin’s Lent.” Slowly, however, according to Guéranger, this practice of penance was reduced to four weeks, and then decreased from a fast to a time of small abstinence, then even further to a practice only the clergy took part in. Today, while not widely seen as a time of penance, we still see remnants of the old traditions, such as charity work, almsgiving, and the sacrament of reconciliation, which are all common practices during the season of Advent. However, the overall preparation time seems to now be overshadowed by the desire to celebrate instead of prepare for Christmas.
It may seem strange to have a strong penitential spirit during Advent, as we are preparing for one of the happiest times in the Church’s year, a moment which is essential for our salvation: the birth of Christ. Furthermore, unlike Good Friday before Easter, there isn’t a time of loss and sorrow preceding Christmas, only uninterrupted joy. The idea of penance seems out of place. Why should we refrain from things which bring us joy when we are about to experience the ultimate joy of Christ’s Incarnation? Shouldn’t we participate in Advent as we do when gearing up for any other joyous occasion, with excited anticipation and glorious preparation? On the one hand, the answer is a resounding “yes”, Advent should have the joyful undertone that is proper when preparing to meet one’s King and Lord. However–and this is key–penance is not necessarily anti-joy, and the purpose of it is not to make you sad, but to make you ready. Penance cleanses the soul and makes it ready to host Christ.
Look to Chapter 22 of Matthew’s Gospel. Here we find the story of the King who throws a grand banquet, and when none of the invited guests show up, he orders his stewards to bring people from the streets and welcome them to his feast. Many came, ready to greet their king. However,
“when the king came in to see the guests, He noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (v.11-14).
Although the guest was welcome, he was not properly prepared to present himself in front of a King. How can we expect to be ready to welcome our Lord unless we take the time to prepare our hearts and soul to welcome Him?
To make your Advent penitential does not mean you have to go as hardcore as you do in Lent, or even that you must sacrifice going to Christmas parties or listening to Christmas music. But there are a number of ways you can bring an act of penance into your Advent season:
- Choose one food or drink to cut out or cut back from.
- Set limits to social media/TV/entertainment time.
- Make time in the week to serve others.
- Go to Confession weekly (many parishes offer Saturday afternoon times)
See? Pretty simple, right? Taking these small steps can add a powerful reminder of what we are preparing for and why it is so important.
There are many more ways than the four above to bring a properly penitential spin to your Advent. They will be more specific to your life circumstances, and are best discerned through intentional prayer, the other aspect of preparation during Advent.
Prayer, like penance, brings us closer to Christ and allows us to enter a state of communion with Him. Advent is a beautiful time to draw closer to Christ and ready our hearts to welcome Him. With our busy schedules during this time, prayer seems to be one of the activities pushed aside and forgotten about. This isn’t to say that we don’t value prayer, but it seems that when our schedules get full, the time in our day set aside for prayer gets pushed around and often erased. We think we will get to it later, or we even try to trick ourselves into thinking that God understands we are busy or that the intention to pray is all that really matters. This lack of prayer discipline begins to spiral quickly until we find ourselves unable to finish a decade of the rosary without becoming bored or distracted. Therefore, we must once again practice the habit of intentionally setting aside time for prayer each day.
Even this simple act of setting aside prayer time, however, can seem overwhelming with our ever-changing schedules and over-commitment mentality. The idea of blocking out an hour, or even 24 minutes, seems daunting when you know you have so much to do. You don’t want to set yourself up for failure by committing to an hour you can’t stick to, so it seems easier just to play it day by day. This may work for some people, but not planning out prayer time is a slippery slope for most. Therefore, trying to make that effort to schedule in prayer is vitally important.
One easy way to do this is commit to 12 minutes at the start of the day and 12 minutes at the end. Eventually you may make it to longer periods of prayer, but when you are overwhelmed and feeling stretched with obligations, breaking it into two small sections of prayer make it seem so much more manageable. One great way to use these 12 minutes in the morning and 12 minutes at night is by praying the Advent Morning and Night Prayers (as found in Guéranger’s Liturgical Year), also known as Lauds and Vespers. These prayers are a part of a greater Divine Office, prayed daily throughout the year by those in monastic life, but are also extended to clergy and laity as well. Morning and Night prayer are just two of the eight prayers in the daily offices recited by those in a monastic order, but even without the other six prayers, they are a great way to start and end your day focused on our Lord.
This Advent, instead of falling once again into the endless cycle of preparing for the day of Christmas and not the season of Christmas, let us yearn to prepare our hearts and souls for the coming of Christ, and to use these days as days of penance and prayer, so we are ready to meet the Lord when He comes.
Below are two PDF’s of the Latin and English versions of the Morning and Night prayers mentioned above, which also have commentary and instructions by Guéranger (in bold). It looks like a lot at first, but with practice and persistence, it will become a valuable part of your life with Christ.
If you would like to read more of Guéranger’s work on the liturgical seasons, it can be found here: http://www.liturgialatina.org/lityear/
Maddie Maher works for Iowa Catholic Radio. She lives in Des Moines and is a parishioner at the Basilica of St. John.