As we begin this purple time of interior preparation, contemplation and mild penitential practices, it is good to consider Mary and Joseph, who are (in a manner of speaking) traveling with us on the road to Bethlehem. Here are four ways to invite the Mother of God and her silent but strong spouse into intimacy within Advent.
1. Make an Advent resolution.
We can think of our soul as the manger that is being prepared during Advent to receive Christ on Christmas night. Surely Joseph did what he could to clean the stable and make it comfortable for Mary and the baby Jesus. We should do the same with our soul: try to clean it of sin, and make it a welcoming place by loving God in our neighbor. We might make a resolution to be more generous with those around us who are in need, to reach out to someone who would otherwise celebrate the holidays alone, or to be patient and understanding of our relatives and in-laws at family Christmas celebrations. Also important would be to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once during Advent to repair and strengthen our relationship with God.
2. At least once during Advent, pray a part of the Liturgy of the Hours.
During this season the Liturgy of the Hours presents us with psalms and texts that speak of the promise of the Messiah. Those Old Testament texts are drawn from Jewish sources; it’s possible that Mary and Joseph were reflecting on some of these same texts as they awaited the birth of their Son, whose mission is foretold in beautiful, often mysterious and symbolic language. By praying with these texts we join ourselves to Mary and Joseph, and to the whole Church, awaiting the coming of the Lord.
It might seem intimidating if you pick up a print copy of the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time, but many churches offer directed community prayer of Morning Prayer or Vespers. If that isn’t an option, you can pray on your own using a website like iBreviary or DivineOffice.org. It doesn’t have to take long either; some of the shorter “hours,” such as midday prayer, take no longer than five minutes or so when prayed privately.
3. Revive a family tradition, or start a new one.
Traditions are means of celebrating, teaching, and keeping alive values. I still remember the Advent calendars that my mother made for my brother and me when we were small. Each morning she would add something to the calendar for the day—a note with instructions, a small gift, a Christmas-themed image. Those notes might tell us to read a specific Scripture passage, or do a good deed, or tip us off to some treat that we had to search for in the form of a treasure hunt. It was a fun activity that also taught us about our faith and the importance of giving to others.
Mary and Joseph, faithful Jews, observed traditions every day of their lives. Advent is a great time to revive a tradition, or to create new ones, that will help everyone to grow in their faith and in their love during this season and beyond.
4. Don’t use up all your Christmas spirit before Christmas.
For secular culture Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year and ends around midnight on December 25. For Catholics, Christmas begins at the evening Mass on December 24 and ends little by little over the next several weeks. For example, the famous “12 Days of Christmas” don’t end until Epiphany, traditionally on January 6. But it’s not over even then! The Christmas season technically extends all the way to the first Sunday after the Epiphany. In 2016, that’s January 10.
At Epiphany, the Wise Men came upon the Holy Family; it was a day of discovery, but further discoveries await. On February 2, Candlemas, we remember Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple, and Simeon’s prophecy.
In other words, Advent begins a journey, one that takes us through the entire liturgical year, one in which we are able to invite the Holy Family, day by day, to be with us.
Keeping Christmas alive in our homes after the commercial hype is over might actually help us to focus more on the real meaning of Christmas and to (like reformed Ebenezer Scrooges) “honor Christmas in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year.” Consider keeping a nativity scene on display in a prominent place in the house, or praying the Angelus, each day—two things that return our minds, again and again, to the mystery of the Incarnation.