Advent: a Season to Experience

Advent is a word with Latin roots. It means “approach” or “coming.” 

But what is Advent, really?

Advent is the beginning of the new liturgical year for the Roman Catholic Church. On the first Sunday of Advent, which begins on December 1st this year (2020),  the Church celebrates its own kind of New Year’s Day. Advent begins each year on the Sunday closest to November 30th, which is the 
feast day of Saint Andrew the Apostle.  People have mistaken Advent as part of the Christmas celebration.  Advent is a time of preparation all its own. Despite what the secular world likes to have us believe Christmas does not officially begin until the first Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve. It is at this point that we begin the beautiful season of Christmas and Christmastide.

Advent is given to us as a time to prepare our souls for the coming of the Lord. This season is very similar to Lent, often referred to as “Little Lent.” In our current culture, we are tempted to skip over the penitential aspects of Advent and focus on the joy of Christmas.  This is a great tragedy.  Focusing on the joy alone denies a crucially important truth: that the Christ Child is Our Lord and Savior, Who will suffer and die for our salvation. Advent has been around for a long time, long before it was actually called “Advent,” and possibly as early as the 2nd century. Originally, it was celebrated for 40 days, just like the Lenten season. This has now been adjusted to four weeks, but the symbolism remains.  You may notice another similarity to the season of Lent when you attend Mass during this Advent season.

What is missing……..? I’ll give you a hint: it is something not sung.

Still not sure?

It is the Gloria.

Similar in form to Lent when we refrain from singing a song we too refrain from singing a song during Advent. Although unlike during Lent when we “bury” the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, during Advent we continue to sing the alleluia and instead we no longer sing the song of the angels: the Gloria. We will sing this song again with the angels on Christmas day, just as they did over two thousand years ago. The Scripture readings at Mass remind us of all the prophecies that point to the Lord’s coming. We are called to keep watch and to leave behind our sinful ways. We also hear the recurring theme of a light shining through the darkness. 

Isaiah 60:19 reminds us of this promise: 
“The sun shall be no longer be your light by day, 
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you
by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, 
and your God will be your glory.” 

Since circles have no beginning and no end, the circular shape of many Advent wreaths is used to symbolize God the Father and eternal life. When Advent Wreaths are decorated, the materials used have symbolic meaning:
Evergreens remind us of our eternal life with Christ. 
Holly represents the crown of thorns from the Passion of Jesus. 
Pinecones symbolize Christ’s Resurrection.

The most important feature to the Advent wreath are the four candles. Each candle is lit one by one throughout the four weeks of Advent. The burning flame is a visual reminder that Christ is “the light of the world.” (John 8:12) There are three violet (purple) candles and one rose (pink) candle, each representing 1,000 years.  Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the Savior. Violet is a liturgical color that is used to signify a time of penance, sacrifice, and prayer. The first, second, and fourth weeks of Advent are when we light violet candles. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete (Latin for “Rejoice”) Sunday. On this day we celebrate that our wait for Christmas is almost over. Rose is a liturgical color that is used to signify joy, so we light the rose candle on Gaudete Sunday. 

Just like the materials used to decorate the wreaths are full of meaning so too are the four candles. The first Advent candle, called the “Prophet’s Candle,” symbolizes  Hope, and reminds us that Jesus is coming.  The second Advent candle, called the “Bethlehem Candle,” symbolizes Faith,  and reminds us of Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey to Bethlehem. The third Advent candle, called the “Shepherd’s Candle,” symbolizes Joy, and reminds us of the joy the world experienced when Jesus was born. The fourth Advent candle, called the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes Peace and reminds us of the message of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.”

Advent is a great way to help keep children focused on the coming of the Christ Child 
rather than on materialistic desires. The many outward signs we observe during this season makes for a great lesson. Each new week of Advent begins at Mass with the lighting of a new candle on the parish’s Advent wreath. Our parish family is connected to our own family when we light our Advent Wreath at home. Explain to your children the meaning of each week’s candle, and what they should focus on during the coming week. Using an Advent calendar is a good tool for kids to use to keep track of the progress during the season. Involving your children in the process of counting down the days of Advent can help them learn how to prepare for Christmas. Many families use calendars that have treats like chocolate inside. It is an easy and fun way to keep kids involved and to explain to them the symbolism of the Advent season. But you do not need to use treats in your calendar. There are many options to choose from that can fit your family’s preference for experiencing the Advent season.

A Nativity set displayed in the home is another way to keep Jesus the focus during Advent. Many homes traditionally have one Nativity set displayed that is often for looking not touching. When I recall my childhood visits to my Granny’s house or my Great Aunts’ house during Christmas what I remember about the nativity sets was they were not for interaction. The beautiful nativity sets just called me to them I longed to touch the delicate figurines, to hold the sweet little baby Jesus, to pretend the sheep were grazing in the fields. My child driven interest was to BE in the MOMENT with Jesus. I wanted to participate in the joy of Christmas through play. Because I was not able to play with the nativity sets I had to settle for looking at them as close as I could without touching. It’s funny how all these years later I still remember being scolded for testing the limits of what was too close to those family heirloom nativity sets.

What we have learned is that our children are naturally drawn to the Nativity set just as we were as children. Children want to interact with it. They long to be near sweet baby Jesus to play out the Nativity story with their own hands. Rather than worry a family heirloom could be broken by little hands we have chosen to make a Nativity set available for our children to explore. In our home we have several types of Nativity sets displayed. Many are for looking and others are for touching. By enabling certain sets to be child friendly our children have become more connected to the Advent season. As our children have aged we have given them more liberties with some of our Nativity sets. We began a new tradition of having our older children have the honor to set up our family heirloom nativity scene. Once it was Mom who would talk about the many ways each of the figures can teach us about waiting for Jesus, following Jesus, or receiving Jesus, now it is the older sibling’s special role. As the younger ones watch on knowing that their turn in the tradition will soon come to be the child who sets up the family nativity set telling the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

I want to share with you two of our more recent additions to our children’s nativity set collections. At a craft fair I came across a peg doll Nativity, painted by a mother from Colorado. It is such a sweet little set that has been a welcome addition. We often find one or more of the pieces have been traveling around our home.

The second is a wooden cut-out set we found at the local craft store. This set was meant to be painted but we have decided that leaving it unpainted has been a better fit for our children’s imagination. The children have the freedom to put these sets up on their own on the foyer sideboard. This is where the nativity sets mostly remain in some variation. Pieces may get mixed between the sets but overall they remain here. Other decorations, such as the Star of Bethlehem (the yellow glittered star made by our 10 year old during her second grade CCD year), are often added to embellish the scenes. What is important to us is that our children are using the freedom of play to grow their Catholic faith. What we love beyond all our hopes is that they have been frequent visitors to this spot in our hallway. Maybe just 5 minutes or maybe an hour, no matter the length of time, the children are there talking to Jesus as they too imagine themselves being transported to that night in Bethlehem.

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