Advent: Preparing hearts as well as homes for Christmas
By Nissa LaPoint
Photo by The Catholic Spirit
While society is in a mad whirl of present shopping, party planning and Santa decorating, the McConnell family is retreating from the secular hubbub to revive a true spirit of Advent.
On the first day of the season, Dec. 2, the McConnell children will write a letter to Jesus about their excitement for his coming birth. The family will drop money in a tithing jar and buy presents for the needy. They’ll set a new Nativity scene prominently by their fireplace. On Christmas Day, they’ll bake a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to “sweet baby, Jesus.”
“It’s really for them to have a grateful heart and to quit focusing on Christmas for presents,” said Linda McConnell about her children, 8-year-old David and 9-year-old Gabriella. “It’s for them to really connect and understand that just because they don’t see Christ physically, he really does exist.”
Couples, families and religious are reviving Catholic traditions and starting new ones to spend Advent preparing their hearts for Christ’s birth.
The feast of the Nativity of the Lord first surfaced in fourth-century Rome and was not preceded by a period of preparation until the sixth century. The Gallic’s earliest penitential custom of a six-week Advent was merged with the shorter and joyous Roman season by the 13th century.
Since then, traditions of making Nativity scenes and lighting Advent wreaths have found their way into homes in the Western Church.
Every year the seminarians of Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary in Denver collect moss or grass, rocks, lights and wood to construct an outdoor Nativity scene, complete with Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and the baby Jesus.
“It’s a beautiful Christian tradition that we try to foster that began with St. Francis in the 13th century,” said Deacon William Clemence, who’s helped build the Nativity scene since 2003. “This tradition helps us to meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation, which is the good news.”
When finished, the seminarians invite children and neighbors to enjoy the scene. It represents a call to conversion and joyful expectation of Christ’s coming, he said.
“It’s not just a matter of putting nice pieces together,” he said. “We are also invited personally to think about what happened in that mysterious birth of Christ. It brings us joy.”
Bible stories come alive
The same joyful anticipation fills Marty and Alice Aragon’s home in Centennial.
For some 20 years, the Neocatechumenal Way adherents have transformed their living room into a Bible story. Marty constructs scenes depicting Noah, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Christ in the manger, Jesus and Mary fleeing to Egypt, Christ walking on water and more—amounting to more than 14 biblical stories.
“I started off with a Nativity scene. Now its pretty much salvation history,” he said.
He invites curious admirers inside and reads Bible stories with his grandchildren.
“It’s an heirloom I’m trying to build for them,” he said. “The Bible comes alive with this.”
Local schools are reviving the Jesse Tree, inspired by a passage in Isaiah. Decorated with symbols of Jesus’ ancestry, the tree depicts the lineage of Christ and how his birth brought Old Testament stories to fulfillment.
During Advent, Laura Ricotta and other teachers at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge read these stories and craft ornaments. They end with the story of the Wise Men’s journey to Bethlehem and top the tree with a star.
The school also recognizes St. Nicholas’ feast day Dec. 6. by putting candy canes in the children’s shoes.
Other families make an effort to prayerfully recognize Advent and withdraw from the commercial aspects of Christmas.
Advent wreaths, symbolizing the coming of the Lord and the hope for salvation, are lit in the Ammerman home. Brett and Maria, who have eight children, say prayers nightly before the wreath set on a purple cloth and topped with four candles.
“It’s how we bring Jesus into our home in a special way,” Maria said, adding that her and her husband’s attempt to make their faith come alive is brought to fruition by the kids’ participation. “Our children bring it even more alive, because they ask such great questions. Each and every year we do it, it just means more.”
They decorate with Nativity scenes but avoid shopping until the third week of Christmas.
“We keep Christmas very simple and stay away from shopping for the most part,” she said.
Some families avoid listening to Christmas music and instead seek out Advent music, such as the new CD “Advent at Ephesus” sung by the Benedictines of Mary of Missouri.
In Jenny and Paul Wolpert’s home, the baby Jesus figurine is not placed in the Nativity crib until Christmas day. Her four boys enjoy slowly moving Wise Men and camel figurines toward the Nativity scene until Epiphany.
They also bless their Christmas tree and read an Advent devotional every Sunday.
“I feel like we’re living in such a secular world that it’s so easy to get caught up in it. They’re just inundated,” Jenny said. “I feel it’s so important to just stop and remember what we’re truly celebrating.”