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: Punishing the poor and needy

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Every afternoon in downtown Denver, homeless men, women and children are given shelter, food and a place to wash themselves. Not far away, hundreds of people are receiving high quality medical care at one of our Catholic hospitals or Marisol Health. Some local parishes also distribute food, clothing, or help with rent. Whether you are on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope or along the Front Range, people of faith are contributing their skills and resources to your community and making it a better place to live, and especially for the less fortunate.

Since we celebrated our nation’s independence about a week ago, the ability of people of faith to make a positive contribution to our society has been on my mind. People of faith make our society a better place as they seek the good and the true, and the right to live our faith in the public square is guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there are forces at work trying to change that, and if they succeed it will be the vulnerable who are hurt the most.

Many people are familiar with Jack Phillips’ case because he recently received a favorable verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. In brief, Jack was sued by a gay couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, since doing so would contradict his belief that God created marriage to be between a man and a woman. His case – and others around the country – clearly show that there are people who want to silence Christian people and use the force of law to make them act against their faith or be punished.

Tim Gill, the multimillionaire who is funding and directing many of these efforts, plainly stated his intentions in a June 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.” According to Gill, people of faith are “wicked” when their views do not agree with his. In this worldview, there is no room for differences on matters of prudence or conscience.

What you won’t hear from activists like Tim Gill is that the people who will suffer the most from his campaign against faith and the freedom of conscience are the homeless, children waiting to be adopted, or those needing hospital care. In short, the people who will be hurt are those who rely on the charitable activity of people of faith.

Take, for example, the Catholic Charities adoption programs in Boston, Illinois, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that have been forced to shut down because they believe it’s not in children’s best interest to be placed with a same-sex couple. In Illinois, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield estimates that about 3,000 children were impacted by their closure. As was predicted, the state is now experiencing a shortage of quality foster families. Surely, this does not benefit society.

It is unexpected, but homeless men and women are also being impacted by changes to regulations. In Sept. 2016 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules that require homeless shelters to accommodate transgender people by placing them according to whatever gender they present themselves as, rather than their biological sex. Most often, it is men identifying themselves as women who approach the shelters, and this frightens the women, especially since many of them have been victimized by men on the streets.

Religious freedom can seem like an abstract concept, but when you look at the fruits of this basic liberty, its importance becomes clear. Moved by their faith, Catholics and others in the Archdiocese of Denver spent 2017 providing over 212,000 nights of shelter, emergency assistance to 28,000 households, 714 job placements, and almost 73,000 volunteer hours through Catholic Charities.

Further, hundreds of immigrants are assisted with English as a Second Language classes, business training, and faith formation through Centro San Juan Diego. In the name of Jesus, tens of thousands of sick people receive medical care at Catholic hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. This list doesn’t include other Christian, Jewish, or Muslim charitable endeavors, nor does it include individuals whose faith guides the way they run their small business or their work for their employer.

It is a convenient and worn-out argument to accuse people of discrimination to pressure them into giving up their beliefs, but this tactic ignores the people who suffer the most from the intolerance of those insisting people of faith give up their beliefs. Our country has long recognized and benefited from the gifts of faithful people, and restricting this spirit of generosity will make our society poorer.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Jack Phillips’ right to religious freedom was infringed, but his case will certainly not be the last. As Christians, we must respond to this pressure with the joy that is born from faith, with loving, persistent resistance and forgiveness. Let us respond to Pope Francis’ appeal that he made as he spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”