We’re well into the first week of Advent, and if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of all the Christmas displays and music and consumerism that has bombarded our senses since November started. As an American, it’s always been easy for me to get pulled into the secular world’s excitement about Christmas, its eagerness to get started with all the partying, eating, gift swapping, caroling, and general Christmas cheer. But as I’ve deepened my faith as a Catholic, I have found that the more focus I put on Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, the easier it is to block out the unending secular Christmas noise and ready my heart, my home, and my family for the coming of the Christ child.
For most people, the phrase “preparing for Christmas” probably evokes memories of setting up Christmas trees and hanging lights outside, wrapping gifts, or organizing the ideal Christmas classics playlist. And while those things certainly count as preparation for Christmas, won’t we suffer burnout—or what I have seen referred to as “the holiday hangover”—if we spend all of November and December with our house decked out for Christmas and with Christmas music playing all day long? I know I would.
A few years ago, as I was researching Catholic Advent traditions that I could incorporate into my family’s liturgical life, I decided that I ought to shift our emphasis from when to set up the Christmas décor and instead focus on the spiritual longing and the growing excitement for the arrival of the Messiah. Traditionally and liturgically, Christmastide lasts many days—at the very least until the Epiphany, but usually until the Baptism of the Lord. Why not leave the Christmas celebrations until Christmastide and focus on the preparation during Advent? Israel spent countless years in hopeful anticipation of the savior—is it really so difficult for me and my family to spend four weeks emulating that same sense of joyful expectation?
The Catholic Church has so many symbols and traditions from which we can draw to prepare our hearts and homes for Christ. In our house, we not only light the Advent wreath every night, but we darken the dining room lights in order to emphasize the light that Christ brought when he came into the world. We also recently implemented the Jesse Tree—a tradition I did not grow up with, but one that I have come to love because it condenses salvation history into a timeline that is easy even for my children to follow. We don’t listen to Christmas music during Advent, choosing instead to listen to Advent music. We read children’s books that discuss the animals’ preparing the barn before the Nativity, or the journey that Mary and Joseph took before Jesus was born.
When we experience Advent in this way, the anticipation for Christmas builds with each passing week. As Christmas Day draws closer, we start baking and freezing the Christmas cookies to be eaten during Christmastide and to be given as gifts at Christmas parties. I take time to plan out special activities for us to do during the twelve days of Christmas, or special meals I know everyone will enjoy during that time. We pray the O Antiphons. We make or buy gifts for our loved ones, and we talk about how giving gifts to our loved ones is a reflection of the great gift of Jesus, who was given to us on Christmas Day.
In this way, when we finally decorate the house on Christmas Eve, we are all practically bouncing with excitement—and not just about presents, but about the miracle of Christ’s birth. Our children’s—and our own—sense of wonder is bolstered and preserved by our not celebrating too early. By steeping ourselves in the history of the first Christmas and by maintaining that same sense of watchful hoping and waiting, we can more fully appreciate the wonder of the arrival of the promised Messiah.
There’s a lot of preparation that goes into the holiday season. It seems in our secular society as soon as the calendar changes to November that the world begins buzzing with cooking, baking, buying, wrapping, and planning. Our calendars overflow with gatherings and obligations and before we know it, it’s a new year. As Catholics, we know that this time of year tells a different story. However, the loud hubbub of secular holiday cheer swirling around us can make it difficult to proclaim it, even to ourselves.
What would it look like in our daily lives over these next few weeks if we as Catholics challenged ourselves, in this season of frenzied preparation, to prepare ourselves to wait? What might that look like? Here are a few steps that we can take.
We cannot decipher what steps to take if we do not spend the time observing where our current steps are leading. Take some time over these next few weeks to observe your spiritual and physical life. Make note of the areas of your life that you feel you are consistently inviting the Holy Spirit to be a part of and those areas in which He has not received an invitation. Notice the time of day or week that anger, frustration, hurt, or anxiety creep into your heart and mind. Where are your moments of joy, praise, and thanksgiving?
How are you caring for your physical body and its environment? Observe how you are fueling your body and your mind. Is the source and substance of that nourishment strengthening your body and mind to be the best version of yourself? Are you spending moments in joyful movement, whatever that may look like for your body, in praise and thanksgiving of the vessel that is fearfully and wonderfully made? Simply take time to observe and collect information on your current state. Try not to put a label or judgment on your observation, but rather work to build your awareness.
Once you have collected your observations, spend some time reflecting on this newfound information and present it at the foot of the Cross. Implore the Holy Trinity to open your eyes and your heart to reveal to you the areas in your life that could be improved or strengthened. Ask for divine intervention to reveal to you the strengths that you possess and the gifts and talents that have been given to you. How might you utilize these strengths, gifts, and talents to bring life and light to those areas of your life that may be lacking? Be patient in your reflection. Do not be afraid of silence! It is often within the quiet of silence that He will make His presence known to you. Allow this prayerful, reflective time to turn your observational information into knowledge.
It’s time to turn that knowledge into a plan. Through your observation and reflection, you will have gathered the necessary tools to be able to move forward in your journey. Carry the strengths that have been revealed to you and humbly face the shortcomings that you have observed. What does action look like for your journey? What steps are required to strengthen areas of your spiritual and physical life that may be lacking? Put your plan into practice and remain vigilant and prayerful of the different ways that you can tweak your plan.
We have spent the remaining weeks of the liturgical year in observation, reflection, and action… and now we wait. As you enter into the Church’s new year and the season of Advent, commit to the action plan you have created and joyfully await the celebration of the birth of YOUR Savior. If you’ve put the work into the first three steps, you will find that your action plan is in fact leading you to prepare for the tiny babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5)
Prepare to wait. Prepare the way. Prepare the place and invite Him to take residence in you – body, mind, and soul.
For more resources to accompany you during this Advent season, please click here.
“Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil...” - Luke 4:1-13
In each of the Church’s Liturgical Seasons we have an opportunity to examine ourselves and reflect on different aspects of Jesus’s life. During Lent we create a space to reflect on His suffering and sacrifices. In today’s Gospel reading the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. For forty days Jesus lived in the wilderness, and faced the devil’s temptations. He was tempted with pride, power, and popularity; however, Jesus knew that He was called to follow God’s will and resist the empty promises the devil offered. I find comfort that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the trial. The forty days were meant to prepare Jesus for the work that was to come, and a part of that preparation included temptations. Jesus relied on His knowledge of the scriptures and combatted the temptations with Truth. Turning a stone into bread seems like an innocent action, but Jesus knew that the temporary satisfaction would be empty and in defiance of God’s will. Jesus understands what it means to face temptation, and in His resistance provides a model of following God’s will that we should all ascribe to. Jesus was tested, and responded without sin. When I find myself facing a trial, I can draw comfort in the knowledge that the same Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness is in me. In His resistance in the wilderness, we have a foretaste of Jesus’s victory to come. At Easter we celebrate Jesus’s victory over death; in the meantime Lent provides us with a time to fast and prepare our hearts for the inevitable temptations of the world. Lent provides us with the opportunity to spend forty days in our own “wilderness”, fortifying our own hearts through sacrifice and prayer.
Throughout Lent we focus on all that Jesus has done for us. In today's Gospel we see that Jesus resisted each temptation, not just for Himself, but for us. Each of the temptations the devil proposed were designed to distract Jesus from His humanity. Each temptation involved Jesus using His divinity for personal gain and separating Himself from the human community. The temptation of individualism is something that we are all called to resist. The Lord created us as social beings with a responsibility to care for one another.
WHO INSPIRES YOU TO SERVE?
My Mom has always been a model of service I aspire to follow. She embodies the principle of placing others first, stressing to me and my siblings that “where your treasure is your heart will also be.” Mom’s treasure is rooted in the love she has for our community, and it is important to her that she actively invests her time to show the love. It could be as simple as caring for our school garden, or as involved as organizing our Church’s homeless outreach ministry. Mom has always found a way to make time for the causes that matter to her, and in doing so has shown the importance of committing time and resources to love others in her care for all of God’s Creation.
Lord, you created us to love and worship. Help me cling to the truth that I am Yours in the midst of trials. When I walk through the valleys help me remember the joys from the mountain tops, and place my hope in the knowledge that Your will is for my good. Stir in me a heart that longs to discern Your will. Help me to work Your justice rather than personal gain every day of my life. Bless our bodies for Your service, and our service for Your Glory.
To view the entire 2019 Lenten Guide, please click here.
For more Lenten resources, please click here.
Mara Scarbrough, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry
The next forty days of Lent are Mother Church’s annual call to intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving oriented towards embracing God as the center of one’s life and repenting of all which distracts us from Him. With the current crisis for the Church in the United States, it seems that the Church could really use a good spiritual renewal, cleansing, and renunciation of sin often focused on during the season of Lent. As parts of the Body of Christ, we are all too aware how an affliction experienced (or caused) by one part affects us all. Recall the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep... Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” The Church is suffering but, just as she always has, she will ultimately be restored for the glory of God. As laity, you and I are key to addressing this scourge, along with the Church’s holy clergy and religious, and to affirming God’s presence in our lives not just in the Lenten season, but every day.
Though a time of repentance, Lent is not a time of despair or hopeless suffering; this season reminds us that God, although saddened by our repeated failings, never closes Himself off from offering mercy and love to the broken, the sinner, and the lost. Lent is not a diet, nor a fad of living without something trivial, nor even a temporary spiritual renewal; it must take root—free from the sin which prevents this—and be nourished over the coming weeks to strengthen us throughout the whole year. Above all, Lent prepares us for the celebration of Easter. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again; the Church suffers, the Church is renewed, the Church shall be restored!
The abuse scandal today may cause people to feel abandoned, angry, confused, and sad. “How can this be happening?” is certainly a question in our hearts and homes these days. It is important to remember that Jesus Christ, the same “yesterday, today, and forever,” reigns over the Church. He is omnipotent, divinely good, and eternal; Let us take courage in the truth that our faith is ultimately in Jesus Christ. Because our Lord remains faithful to us and ever close to His bride, the Church, He gives us the strength to recommit ourselves to renouncing the evil in our sight that threatens to drive us away from God and His Church.
Lent is the perfect opportunity to facilitate spiritual renewal, not only for ourselves but also for the greater Church. Following the example of Jesus’ time in the desert before commencing His public ministry, the faithful are invited to reflect on the state of the Church, pray for strength, courage, justice, and healing, and even seek accountability in the governance of the Church. Personal penance can be made for our own failings, but reparation must also be made to address this scandal and to unify God’s people to prayerful and peaceful action in seeking God’s healing grace to move forward.
Over the next 40 days, let us care for the Church by promoting healing among ourselves, supporting the afflicted and needy, addressing sin and divisions, and always proclaiming Christ to each other and the world.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
 cf. Lumen Gentium, 33.
 Romans 12:15, 21.
 Hebrews 13:8.
 cf. 2 Timothy 2:13.
Happy New Year! We have officially brought the Church year to a close and have entered into a new liturgical year with the first week of Advent. It is a time of new beginnings and yet a profound time of waiting and preparation as we anticipate the joy of the birth of a tiny babe in a manger. I find it interesting that this time of waiting comes right at the beginning of the new liturgical year. In the secular world, New Year’s celebrations are immediate and urgent. We count down to the strike of midnight, kiss our loved ones, announce our resolutions, and toast the entrance of the next phase. Some of us celebrate the end of another passing year with relief. Some feel a deep hope and longing that the year to come will bring with it some rest and release from the trials and tribulations of the previous year. Others celebrate the successes of the year and look forward to hopeful continued success. No matter which category you fall into, the secular New Year brings with it some sense of urgency, of immediate change.
In the Church’s liturgical year, we celebrate our “New Year’s Eve” with the celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday before Advent. In Pope Francis’s 2013 homily he reminded us, “Jesus is the center of creation; and so the attitude demanded of us as true believers is that of recognizing and accepting in our lives the centrality of Jesus Christ, in our thoughts, in our words and in our works.” Pope Pius XI instituted this celebration in 1925 to help remind us that, “while governments and philosophies come and go, Christ reigns as King forever.” Can you feel it? Can you feel the excitement, hope, and assuredness infiltrating you as a believer of Christ, King of the Universe? And then we wait… This stark contrast brings with it the perfect time for reflection and re-evaluation.
In thinking and reflecting on the Advent season at the beginning of this new liturgical year, I’m struck by the images that come to mind. The slow burn of a candle in the window, darkness in anticipation of the light of morning. We are searching, seeking, wanting, waiting.
“Not all who wander are lost,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote. Over the years it has become a fairly well known quote. How does this quote speak to you this Advent season? At times we may wander through the ebb and flow of our daily lives and this quote seems to reach out to us in an attempt to comfort us when we find ourselves in this place. But let’s take a deeper look at this particular quote. What does it mean to wander? To wander is to walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way. In what areas of your life have you been wandering? More importantly, do you know where you are going?
Advent is the perfect time for reflection and re-evaluation. “Not all who wander are lost.” Is it true? Sometimes we need the casual and the leisurely. It can be good to have a moment to take a breath. This time of Advent at the beginning of our new liturgical year, though, is a time to challenge ourselves. Are we still wandering? Have we lost sight of our aim? Perhaps Advent is calling us out of our time of wandering and into a time of wondering. To wonder is to desire or be curious about something; to feel amazement, to marvel. What is your heart longing for this Advent season? Where in your life are you being called into a deeper relationship with Christ, King of the Universe? He is coming and His desire to know and love us is so great that He is coming as a vulnerable and dependent baby in a manger. “They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Faith-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5) He is coming. Are you ready?
This season, let us remember, all that WONDER as they behold the Christ child will never be lost.
Question for Reflection: What is your heart longing for this Advent season?
For resources to prepare you for the Advent season, please click here.
The candy has gone on sale, the post-Thanksgiving “leftover sandwich” has been eaten, but it’s not time to deck the halls just yet. As many prepare for the joyful season of Christmas, complete with mall Santas, holiday movies, and plans to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Church prepares during the season of Advent. This time isn’t just for buying gifts and putting up the tree, but to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of Christ. This season of preparation can be traced back to 4th century France, though the Advent we are familiar with can be traced back to Pope Gregory I and Rome in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Whereas Lent is a time of penance for Christians, Advent is a time of preparation and hope. Not only do we prepare for the birth of the Lord, but we also look to the Second Coming of Christ. The first coming of Jesus at Christmas opened the doors for our salvation and prefigures his Second Coming. It is because of this hope that Advent focuses on light and not darkness. This light can be symbolized in the Advent wreaths that adorn Churches and the houses of the faithful. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, three purple and one rose. The purple candles represent prayer and sacrifices that are undertaken in preparation for the coming of Christ. The rose candle, lit on Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent), is a symbol of rejoicing as the faithful have reached the midpoint of the season.
When we thank God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the chance to be with him for all eternity in Heaven, we often think of Easter, but Christmas is necessary in the plan for our salvation as well. Before Christ could suffer and die for us, achieving our redemption and the path for our salvation, he had to become man. What a gift this is! If you follow the Franciscan theology of the incarnation as proposed by Bl. Duns Scotus, Christ would’ve become man with or without the original sin of Adam and Eve, but his mission of salvation makes his Incarnation that much more special for us. As Pope Benedict XVI said at a General Audience, “[Bl. Duns Scotus] reaffirmed that the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation.”
Jesus, the God of all the universe, became man. But he did not just become a man—he became a vulnerable baby born in a manger. As we encounter him every time we partake in the Eucharist, let us pray and meditate upon the fact that God became vulnerable for us. God loved us so much that he became man. Years after his birth in a manger, he took on our sins so that we may be with him forever. Just as we prepare to receive him into our bodies when we receive the Eucharist, let us prepare to receive the Lord into the world this Advent and make ourselves more worthy of him.
Advent is our time to come closer to Christ, to meditate on how he is present in our lives, and to see how he has called us to live with our fellow man as we await his Second Coming. While prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are certainly emphasized during the season of Lent, they can also be integral parts to our preparation for Christmas. May we pray for Christ to be present in our lives and for us to do his will at all times; may we fast from the things that lead us away from him; and may we give alms to those who are less fortunate than us. In these ways we prepare for Christ during Advent as we await both his Nativity and his Second Coming.
Question for Reflection: What are some Advent traditions that have helped you prepare for the coming of Christ?
For more resources to help you throughout the Advent season, please click here.
Growing up in a farming community in southern New Jersey (yes, New Jersey does have farms, that is why it is called the Garden State), I learned a little something about soil that is good for planting and soil that needs work, sometimes a great deal of work, until planting can happen. Good soil does not just “happen”. There is preparation and proper nurturing, even times of rest so that the soil is best. In his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis talks about “good soil,”
“In the parable of the sower, Saint Luke has left us these words of the Lord about the ‘good soil;’ ‘These are the ones who when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance’ (Lk 8:15). In the context of Luke’s Gospel, this mention of an honest and good heart which hears and keeps the word is an implicit portrayal of the faith of the Virgin Mary” (Lumen Fidei, n. 58).
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption, we are offered by the Church the great example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ever-faithful disciple, who witnesses for us the way to live well our baptismal call as disciples and apostles of Christ.
“By her complete adherence to the Father's will, to his Son's redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church's model of faith and charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 967).
By witnessing faith and charity we live well our baptismal vocation. Our vocation as baptized is our primary vocation. All of the other vocations as married, single, consecrated, or priest are all secondary to this primary vocation as follower of (disciple) and sent by (apostle) Jesus Christ. Each is a way one can live out the primary vocation. How does one decide? Through a process of discernment, one is called to be informed, pray, make a choice, and take action. I make it seem easy. The process is not an easy one, but like making “good soil,” it is necessary in order to make a truly informed choice about how to live our vocation as a disciple and apostle. You might not be ready to make a choice about what way to live this vocation for life, or maybe you have done so already, but living it out as a disciple and apostle is what all of us are called to do. The Blessed Virgin Mary can assist us in our discernment of our apostolic vocation in life and in living it out faithfully and well, truly being “good soil.”
May we join together in the prayer of Pope Francis at the conclusion of Lumen Fidei.
“Mother, help our faith! Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize his voice and call. Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise. Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith. Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross, when our faith is called to mature. Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One. Remind us that those who believe are never alone. Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord!"
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.