Celebrating Advent: A Time to Make Room in Our Lives for Jesus
Advent begins the new liturgical year for Christians. It is a time to renew our love for God and for one another. It is a time to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation and grace to make room in our hearts and in our lives for Jesus.
As the Christmas season approaches it is easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of holiday activities and parties. Deep down we realize there is more to Advent. For that reason Advent has many customs and traditions that emphasize why prayer and simple living remind us of all three aspects of Advent:
• The Lord comes in history at Christmas.
• The Lord comes in mystery each and every day of our lives.
• The Lord comes in majesty at the end of time.
The Liturgical Colors of Advent
The official liturgical color for Advent is purple or violet. This color reminds us to prepare for Jesus’ coming. The color symbolizes both the darkness of sin and the royalty of Jesus Christ. On the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) the liturgical color is rose. The Latin word Gaudate means “rejoice.” We rejoice because the hope and joy of Christmas will soon be here.
The Lectionary Readings for Advent
The Lectionary readings for the fur Sundays of Advent are carefully planned. All of the readings focus on themes of waiting, preparing, hope and transformation. They express the compassion of God as well as the deepest longings of God’s people for a more intimate friendship with God. For family-friendly materials on the Sunday readings go to “Gospel Reflections” on the Faith First for Families page of this website. For catechist-friendly age appropriate materials on the Sunday reading go to “Lectionary” on the Catechist and Teachers page of this website.
The Very Idea of Christmas Fills Us with Expectations
There are countless customs and symbols, some are centuries old, that help us celebrate Advent with joy, patience, and expectation. These customs and symbols remind us that Jesus is the source of Life. He loves us. He yearns to dwell within our hearts and is eager to accept whatever space we give him.
• The Advent Wreath is an extremely popular custom that is celebrated in churches and homes all over the world. The origins of the Advent Wreath go back to pagan times. Its Christian symbolism was introduced in Germany in the 1600s. The wreath is made of four candles that are placed in a circle of evergreens. Three of the candles are purple; the fourth is pink or rose. The purple candles express the mood of the season—we always need Christ in our lives. The rose or pink candle represents the mood of joy that grows stronger because Christmas will soon be here. This candle is lighted on the Third Sunday of Advent—a time of rejoicing because the season of Advent has passed the halfway point. The evergreens in the wreath represent the durable hope of eternal happiness. Usually the Advent Wreath is lighted in church before the Sunday liturgy and in homes before the main family meal is served. The lighting of the candles symbolizes the abundance of light that Jesus brings to the world to cast out the darkness of sin and selfishness. The lighting ceremony usually includes scripture readings, prayer, and appropriate Advent music.
• The Jesse Tree is another popular family and school tradition for celebrating Advent. This annual activity traces the ancestry of Jesus through the Old and New Testaments. The Jesse Tree is named for the father of King David. Its scriptural foundation is based on Isaiah 11:1, “A root shall sprout from the stump of Jess and a branch shall grow out of its roots.” A Jesse Tree can be made of cardboard or a small artificial tree. The symbols that are placed on the tree represent the key figures in salvation history. For instance, the symbols might be an apple for Adam, an Ark for Noah, a sacrificial lamb for Abraham and Isaac, a ladder for Jacob, a Temple for Solomon, a stalk of wheat for Ruth, carpenter tools for Joseph, a crown of stars for Mary, and a pair of sandals for John the Baptist. The symbols are placed on the tree each day during Advent along with a corresponding scripture reading. By participating in the Jesse Tree activity adults and children learn about God’s plan of salvation step by step.
• The Christmas Tree is usually the focal point for family holiday gatherings. It is an unmistakable sign that celebrates the birth of Jesus and life. The tree is decorated with ornaments and lights, many of which are family keepsakes that have been passed along for generations. The “Christmas Decorations” storage box is safely packed away in the attic or basement for eleven months. It then comes to life in a magical way each year as the season of Christmas approaches. When the decorated tree is finally lighted it does not stand alone. Rather, it is a time of celebration, bringing together family, friends, and good cheer. Some historians claim that St. Boniface was the first person to decorate a Christmas tree; some say it was Martin Luther. There is evidence that indicates the Christmas tree custom developed out of a medieval Paradise Play. By the middle of the seventeenth century, candles representing Christ the Light of the World were placed on the tree.
• The Nativity Scene conveys an inspiring message of the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago. It also symbolizes Jesus’ living presence with us right here and now. The nativity scene is the first part of the earth to touch the infant Jesus. It is earth’s gift to God who redeems us and makes us a New Creation. The Nativity Scene helps us rediscover the excitement and joy of the birth of Jesus as presented in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Both writers want us to know that the Child is the Son of God. The infant is announced by the angels, conceived by the Holy Spirit, visited by the shepherds and the magi, and given the name Jesus, which means “God saves.” Ironically, the first people to hear the Good News of Christmas were the shepherds. They were tending their flocks and typically were on the margins of society. They usually were the last to be told anything. The vivid lesson we learn from the shepherds is the Good News is for all people, not just for the privileged. It was in the Middle Ages that the nativity scene grew in popularity. It became even more popular through the work of St. Francis of Assisi in 1224 when he used real-life people and animals to create a dramatic sense of God’s humble entrance into human history. Eventually, the nativity scene, with statue representation of key figures and animals, found its way into churches and homes of all religious denominations.
• Las Posadas is a Hispanic custom that usually takes place on the last nine evenings before Christmas, December 16-24. In recent times this custom has grown in popularity across all cultures in the U.S. The word “posadas” means inn or lodging. Las Posadas is a procession that traces the steps of Mary and Joseph as they seek lodging and a safe place for the birth of Jesus. The procession travels through a specific neighborhood. The boys and girls in the procession can be dressed as Mary and Joseph. The adults carry candles or flashlights to light the way. The procession stops to visit a number of pre-selected homes each evening. When the procession reaches the front door at each home, the children in unison ask or sing, “Do you have lodging?” The people at the first homes refuse lodging and say, “Go away. There is no lodging.” Finally, the last home in the procession route welcomes everyone. At this point there is a celebration of joy; the Holy Family has found a place of shelter. The celebration often concludes with snacks, soft drinks, and a piñata.
Questions for Reflection:
1. What are some of your favorite Advent customs and traditions? What are some family traditions you use year after year in your home to add to the religious meaning of the Christmas tree? the Nativity scene? sending and receiving Christmas cards? Christmas stockings? holiday baking?
2. As stated at the beginning of this article: Advent is a time of prayer and simplicity. Sometimes we might lose sight of the spiritual purpose of Advent because Advent is bookended by two very festive holidays-Thanksgiving and Christmas. Take time to reflect on the spiritual meaning of Advent and discuss the following questions. What are some Advent traditions that can be observed in homes and schools that can keep everyone focused on the coming of the Savior? that emphasize prayer and simplicity instead of the hectic pace of Thanksgiving and Christmas? that can slow down commercialism and the frenetic pace of the holiday season?
3. Some church observers speculate that the carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" comes from a time in England (1558-1829) when Catholics were not allowed to publicly practice their faith. As a result the lyrics of "Twelve Days of Christmas" have two levels of meaning-a surface meaning and a hidden meaning. The hidden meaning was a catechetical teaching device. Each verse of the carol was a code language for children to memorize. For instance, the pear tree is Jesus, two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, three French hens are faith, hope, and charity, four calling birds are the four Gospels, five golden rings are the Torah-the first five books of the Bible, the six geese a-laying are the six days of creation, the seven swans are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the eight maids a-milking are the beatitudes, the nine ladies dancing are the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments, the eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles, the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve statements of belief in the Apostles' Creed.
4. Gregory Pierce in his book Christmas Presence (ACTA, 2002) reflects on this legend with this observation. "Christmas is about giving gifts, to be sure...but these gifts are always more than what they seem to be on the surface....The gifts of Christmas have always stood for much deeper realities-from the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh by the three wise men to the playing of drums by the little drummer boy to the hair combs and watch fob given to each other by the married couple in the O. Henry story."
5. Now take a few quiet moments to let the Ghost of Christmas Past touch you. What are some of your fondest Christmas memories? What Christmas gift stands out in your memory as something special that conveys a much deeper reality?
6. Create a quiet mood for prayer. Take a few moments between each verse and discuss: What is this prayer saying about the importance of simplicity in preparing for Christmas?
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparation for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces
to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things
look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways
long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy
seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people,
walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, "Come, Lord Jesus!"