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: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.