Have Yourself a Holy Little Advent: A Convert’s Guide to the Season

A Ukrainian-made angel adorns the Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
A Ukrainian-made angel adorns the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Originally published December 2, 2013

Having emerged from your tryptophan-induced stupor, you awoke on Friday to the triumphant proclamation that it is Christmas. The TV says so. Every big box retailer in your neighborhood says so. The lights and wreathes and inflatable Santas that appeared like magic overnight say so. To this I say, bah. Humbug!

Ok, here’s the deal: I love Christmas. I love everything about Christmas. But it’s not Christmas yet! It’s Advent. Advent is the liturgical season of preparation that proceeds Christmas. New to observing Advent? Your favorite convert gives you the basics to this beautiful season of hope.

A — Advent wreath: Every Catholic church and many Catholic homes display an Advent wreath. This wreath consists of an evergreen wreath, three purple candles, and one rose candle. The candles are lit one by one on the Sundays of Advent and are meant to symbolize Jesus, the Light of the world, coming to dwell among us. The evergreens in a circle represent eternal life. Pine cones or other seed-bearing decorations symbolize resurrection. The purple candles represent prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and the rose candle, lit on the third Sunday of Advent, represents joy at the midpoint of Advent on Gaudete Sunday. Consider making your own Advent wreath and lighting the candles as part of your prayerful preparation for Christmas.

D — Declutter: Let’s unclutter our lives and get our respective spiritual houses in order. Jesus is coming! Advent is a season of making our hearts ready for the coming of Jesus, our Emmanuel… a season that weaves our joyful expectation with a call to deeper conversion. Our Advent preparation is often drowned out by the insistent cacophony of consumerism. Consider spending less time shopping and more time mending rifts (big and small) in your relationships. Try making homemade gifts (Pinterest!) and using the money you saved to help those in need. When loved ones ask what you’d like for Christmas, why not ask them to give to your favorite charity?

V — Veni, Veni Emmanuel: Many of us are familiar with the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (This version has a banjo and this version has a face melting guitar solo at the end. You’re welcome.) This popular Advent song has its origin in the great O Antiphons, a series of seven responsorial prayers that offer titles for the coming King. From December 17 through December 23, the Church prays these antiphons (sung or spoken responses) during vespers (the part of the Liturgy of the Hours prayed during the evening). You can use this resource to pray along with lay and religious Catholics around the world.

E — Empty manger: Go ahead and put out your nativity set … without the baby Jesus. What?! Blasphemy, you say! Nope. Catholic tradition. As Christmas approaches, you may notice that the nativity scene at your local parish has made an appearance in some prominent spot in the church with the exception of Baby Jesus. He’s not there … not yet. He won’t make his triumphant entrance until Christmas day. Until then, the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the three Magi, the shepherds, and the friendly beasts will wait. At our house, our oldest child gets to choose a safe place to keep the baby Jesus until Christmas morning. Before any of the Christmas morning chaos is allowed to ensue, he brings Baby Jesus down the stairs and — with the solemnity particular to children of a certain age — sets him in the manger while everyone shouts “Happy birthday, Jesus!” If you have little people at your house (or you’re expecting little visitors this Advent) consider getting your hands on a felt nativity set. Kids learn by playing and acting out the Christmas story, and the last thing you want is a crowd of headless wise men and a one legged St. Joseph. (Trust me on this one.)

N — Nicholas: The feast of St. Nicholas falls on December 6. This Advent saint lived in the third (and into the fourth) century. He was a Greek bishop in Myra renowned for his piety, humility, and generosity. In fact, he was one of the bishops who participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325, which gave us the Nicene Creed. One of the most well known stories about St. Nicholas involves a poor man who had no dowries for his three daughters. In that time, a woman with no dowry was destined to a life of sexual slavery. The man wept bitterly that he could not spare his daughters such an awful fate. Bishop Nicholas, too humble to receive any credit for his actions, threw three sacks of gold coins down the chimney. The man and his daughters rejoiced.

Christians celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas by putting chocolate gold coins in their children’s shoes. St. Nicholas usually brings chocolate gold coins, clementines, holy cards, and other small treasures. (We like to leave him a beer and a carrot for his donkey.) If you’re celebrating Advent with little ones, introduce them to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the holy namesake of Santa. You can say a St. Nicholas novena for the children in your life and children throughout the world. Also, why not honor our friend Nicholas in heaven by giving to a local rape crisis center or a charity that helps victims of sex trafficking?

T — Tree: No, not your Christmas tree … your Advent tree! A Jesse Tree illustrates the genealogy of Christ with a series of ornaments depicting his various ancestors as outlined in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. The last seven ornaments coincide with the titles for Jesus found in the O Antiphons. You can make your own ornaments or purchase a Jesse Tree kit. Why not make it a new family tradition to decorate your tree with purple ribbons and Jesse Tree ornaments during Advent and wait until after Christmas Mass to add your Christmas decorations?

Remember, we’re not only preparing ourselves to celebrate Jesus coming to dwell among us … the King of Kings born into this world and into human history as a poor child in an occupied land. We’re preparing ourselves for his coming again. For a fulfillment of all he has promised us. For our joy to be made complete. For the reign of justice and mercy and peace to be realized in luminous glory upon all the earth and among all its peoples. Have yourself a holy little Advent, friends! God bless you!