Let your family culture set the tone for Advent

My husband and I recently celebrated our fourth anniversary of being received into the Catholic Church.  Our conversion is still somewhat of a beautiful mystery to me—how did we, of all people, manage to stumble upon the fullness of the faith?—and the more time that passes, the more I realize that our Catholic faith is far deeper and richer than I ever could have imagined.

 

Relatively new to us as converts has been the rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons.  Advent in particular has been an incredible thing to enter into, I suspect because the season holds so much for those of us who feel as if we’re deep in the trenches of life.  As a  mother to eight children, I know what it is to worry over a little one’s future, to suffer through a miscarriage (or three), to sit in a hospital waiting room while a child undergoes open heart surgery.  As a mother with adopted children, I know what it is to answer hard questions, to continually point broken hearts towards God, and to long for the day when Jesus will set everything right once again.  In the meantime we wait, and we hope.

 

And Advent, to me, is precisely that: hope.  Mysterious and profound hope, found in the waiting and quiet of a world anticipating the birth of a desperately needed Savior.  So while we admittedly haven’t been at this whole Catholic thing very long, I wanted to share some of the ways we observe Advent in our home.  Clumsy and humble as our efforts may be, I want to encourage you in your own journey towards Jesus this upcoming season.  If we can do it, you can, too!

 

Planning ahead.  Maybe this is kind of obvious, but I think it’s a good idea to at least partially think out what you hope to do well ahead of time.  It makes a huge difference, for example, when you actually purchase your Advent wreath for the dining room table prior to the start of Advent!  And don’t forget the candles, either–I am fairly certain we’ve failed at both in the past.  Have your Advent items stored for the year in labelled bins, and make a list of things you’ll need to purchase.  Once the season gets underway, you’ll want to be able to focus on your traditions (along with all of your other daily tasks).  Speaking of the Advent wreath, we really do own one, and try to light the appropriate candle(s) around the dinner table while singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, either nightly or, at the very least, weekly.  And make sure you set aside at least one time to get to Confession!

 

Keeping things small.  When we first became Catholic, I felt like we had to know and do All of the Catholic Things.  If I accidentally missed a feast day or an opportunity to celebrate in some particular way, I beat myself up because I felt like my kids were missing out.  Nowadays though I’m much more realistic about how we observe the liturgical seasons in our home, which of course don’t stop for the stomach flu or a toddler’s meltdown.  Each year our goal is simply to set up our Advent wreath, set out our assorted Nativity sets that we’ve collected on our travels around the world, and use some sort of book of daily readings to be done as a family during or after dinner.  Simple things, but things my kids really love.  Even my oldest children are still thrilled over the shepherd and Holy Family figurines arranged around the manger, and even the littlest appreciate the Advent hymns. I like to choose a few good traditions to shoot for, and that way if for some reason we aren’t able to make it to the Spanish Mass for the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it’s okay.

 

Maintaining perspective.  Sometimes we see so many possibilities, so many good things to potentially incorporate into our family celebrations, that Advent ceases to be a time to be still before the Lord, and becomes yet another box to check or obligation to fulfill.  But the truth is, of course, that what we really need to be doing during this season is looking inward, preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus.  And if you are like me, and in a phase of life where the laundry, mopping, and shuttling kids around never seems to stop, you have a limited amount of time, period.  So don’t get down on yourself if it feels like you’re the only dad or mom in your parish that doesn’t put coins in your kids’ shoes on December 6th.  Remember instead that it’s not a contest, and that while there is no shortage of lovely traditions to adopt, you have the rest of your life to do so.  Keep the basics the basics, and remember that God has you in your particular life phase for a reason.  Don’t forget to embrace that in embracing the season of Advent.

 

Honoring your own unique family culture.  Every family is different.  This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but sometimes we forget, and then we have a harder time maintaining the aforementioned perspective.  Some families wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their Christmas trees, which is very much in keeping with the heart of Advent, a season of penance and waiting.  We however, for as long as I can remember, have always jumped the proverbial gun and gotten our tree up by the end of Thanksgiving weekend.  Eventually I’d love to try doing it the other way, but so far it’s just what we’ve always done.  Earlier I mentioned our Nativity scenes spread all throughout our home, but I know for some that would be begging for broken Nativity scenes.  There is also always extended family, and the continuing or incorporating of their traditions.  So in planning for your Advent, make sure you’re choosing activities that will work for you and your particular family.  It may look different from the family down the street, and that’s okay.  The ultimate goal is to ready our hearts for the coming of Jesus, and that is something we can all do, no matter who we are.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.