By Andrea Perkins
Editor’s note: In this two-part series, Andrea Perkins first introduced the liturgical year and its practice in the home. Here, she introduces Advent and gives suggestions for celebrating it individually and as a family.
As previously explored, the liturgical year is the Church’s way of recollecting the sacred memories of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. What better place to begin, then, than when he is wrapped in the dark warmth of Mary’s womb? Even nature waits, asleep under the dark blanket of winter. Advent is the perfect season to begin with because it is gestational in nature: the season of waiting and preparation. What is growing and becoming is not visible to us but we are aware of its existence, and this provides us with hope.
Those who distinguish Advent from Christmas recognize it as a season marked by longing and preparation amidst the darkness of shorter days. The Church year draws to a close on the tail end of Autumn—the last bright bursts of color fade as leaves drift from the trees and the world is left bare. The harvest has been gathered, farms and gardens lay dormant, and the Church concludes the year with two great feast days—All Saints and All Souls—remembering the lives of those who have departed and gone before us. It is in this shifting of seasons that Advent begins the year anew: in darkness and stillness.
We (and this present age) are in darkness because of our own sin (1 John 1:7). The season is marked by the recognition and acknowledgement of sin, celebration of the Incarnation and Christ’s salvific work in our lives, and preparation for and anticipation of his return (Hebrews 9:26-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Zechariah’s Benedictus in Luke 1 paints a beautiful picture of this in light of Christ’s first coming, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Advent has a somber quality about it—serious work is involved in preparing and keeping ourselves attentive for the coming of our Lord—but the season is primarily anticipatory because it is, as Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes, “full of comforting hints, tastes, and signs” pointing toward the joy of Christmas and the epiphanic reality of Christ with us (To Dance with God). Light increases in the darkness as we add candles to the wreath on our table. As the light grows, hope grows and our faces brighten. Secret plans are made for Christmas. Gifts are prepared, and we cook, bake, and store away for those twelve special days of joyful celebration. All of these things are disciplines and practices of body and soul: preparing our whole selves to receive the gift of Christ.
Amidst the ever-increasing busyness of our lives, Advent provides us an opportunity to pause—pray, reflect, confess—and lift our faces to the bright hope of the coming Lord. As St. Paul reminds us, “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 6:16-17). The season of Advent reminds us to live our lives in expectation of this glorious day.
If you aren’t doing so already, incorporate one or two Advent practices into your life or the life of your family this season. Ceremonies and traditions are threaded into the fabric of a family over time. It is right for this to take time because we want traditions to be true and meaningful, not moralistic and burdensome. We do not bring meaning to the liturgical calendar but instead draw meaning from it. To do this we have to become students of the calendar; we must pay attention to the rhythm of the year.
Ideas for preparing ourselves for the coming of our Lord:
Enter deeper into prayer; pray in a dark room or by candle light; consider journaling and reading a book on the topic such as The Art of Praying by Romano Guardini, Christian Proficiency by Martin Thornton, Our Father by Alexander Schmemann, or The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill.
Use an Advent wreath & candles to mark the season; children might also appreciate an Advent calendar or garland with simple readings & activities to track the passing of days (daily Advent devotions can be found here).
Listen to Advent music; sing seasonal hymns (reference Ken Myers’ music blog Cantica Sacra for guidance).
Read a book of short meditations or poems such as Waiting on the Word by Malcolm Guite, The Christian Year by John Keble, or The Savior of the World (Vol. 1: The Holy Infancy) by Charlotte Mason.
Reflect on the appointed lessons and Collects.
Dedicate time each day to silence and reflection.
Meet with a priest for confession.
Advent books for children/youth:
Getting ready for the Lord requires knowledge of the story and source of our hope. Good picture books that tell the story of Christ’s birth: The Story of Christmas by Pamela Dalton and The Christmas Story illustrated by Gennady Spirin (text from the Gospels, King James Version); “Jesus is Born” from Tomie DePaola’s Book of Bible Stories; The Story of Christmas by Jane Ray (text adapted from Scripture with folk-art style illustrations); and The Story of Christmas by Felix Hoffmann.
Look!: A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas by Laura Alary.
All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss. These portraits of the natural world are not always overtly spiritual but provide inspiration and enrichment for the Advent season.
Hallelujah: A Journey Through Advent with Handel’s Messiah edited by Cindy Rollins. This small booklet includes a daily guide to listening to Handel’s Messiah, Scripture readings, poems & passages to memorize, Advent hymns, and more.
Andrea Perkins lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, Fr. Mark, and two daughters. She is the operations manager for Three Notch'd Road: The Virginia Baroque Ensemble.