My little Advent series so far:
How often does it happen that the prophecy “… and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) proves true?
I’d say any time that a baby arrives. If there is any openness at all to the grace of our nature as parents, we want what is best for our children. The burden of teaching them lies heavy on our hearts.
The Child of Bethlehem leads us. Interestingly, He has taken care, from the beginning of the universe, to order things this way: that our children will lead us, by our love for them, to delve deeper into the hows and whys of our vocation to raise them up as they should go.
There is one piercing fact of life: That God entered Time to dwell among us. What if there was a simple (not easy, necessarily, but simple) way to teach our children (and learn, ourselves, in the process) this fact with all its implications?
Chesterton, who loved Christmas above all, says, “Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of an unknown strength that sustains the stars.”
John Saward, who wrote thorough theology of Christmas, said this:
“The human birth of the Son of God is at all times alive in the Church’s memory, but at certain times it becomes the chief object of her meditation — every year for a season, and at the beginning of a new millennium for twelve months of jubilee.”
(I was thinking the other day about this — who is that guy — and who would like to be that guy — who keeps these things in mind. It’s all very well to say “we do such-and-such ‘at the beginning of a new millennium’ in that airy way — but it’s only happened twice now and I have a hard time remembering the things I have to do every day — “oh, right, make dinner” — let alone every 1000 years. If ever there was proof of the permanence of an institution, this is it, am I right!)
He goes on:
“If the Child born of the Virgin is the Father’s Word, through whom all things were made, then the birth of that Child — the Christmas mystery — must indeed have ‘cosmic value,’ a truth large enough for an eternity of contemplation… “
We — and our children! — have to get ready for this momentous event, and our worship has to be interior as well as exterior. (The encyclical that beautifully explains these two inseparable aspects of worship is Mediator Dei — why not read it for your prayer sometime?)
Advent is a time of fostering this necessary interiority, in the most delightful way possible, by means of the senses. The delight isn’t that of exuberant joy, but its quiet wonder is just as essential to our nature. If we don’t express it and experience it at least once a year, we are missing out on what it means to be a human being.
Some want to say that Advent is not a penitential time. The argument goes that it’s preparation and it’s not Lent. That part is true. However, there are different kinds of fasting! This season of Advent wisely expands on the natural excitement of the child who, looking forward to a wonderful occasion, can’t stop to dwell on treats or distractions. When his whole being vibrates with wholehearted anticipation for the desired object, “giving things up” becomes a joy.
We all know that suffering is part of life and our children must gradually learn the right way to suffer. Two times I encountered the wrong approach recently: First, at the doctor’s office, where a dreadful kids’ show, by means of an ugly ditty, was teaching a message about suffering with sad feelings: Soon they will be over. Second, on a poster in my church’s basement, where the children go for religious education. About prayer it said that we can pray that God will remove our sadness.
So this is what we are reduced to! Wait and it will be over. God is a magician who will take bad feelings away.
These are lies, you know.
Instead, Advent teaches us with infinite delicacy and exactly the right emphasis for a child (actual or perhaps that poor one in each of us) that we offer to God our discomforts — out of love for Him.
I really recommend, along with the patience it takes to open each door of the calendar in turn and light each candle as the weeks go by, the custom of using straw to make the manger in the empty creche comfortable for Baby Jesus. You can put straw (aka dried grass) in a basket by the creche. Each straw represents an act of charity that the child does for someone else — something hidden that perhaps he only speaks of to you, his de facto spiritual director. Those sweet conversations you have with him at bedtime or walking along, where you suggest little acts of helpfulness (“You could help your sister with her shoes”) or self denial (“You could do your morning chores without complaining”) will give him the right idea. No need to overdo it. Then he runs to place a straw there… gently learning to offer himself as part of the sacrifice.
I think children feel a lot of compassion for the poor Child who is laid in the cold manger, and that is how they learn to suffer willingly in Advent. Even this Baby suffered, right from the beginning, they soon understand. How could we tell our children this? No, they must just experience it, with great trust and affection in the bosom of the home. We learn too.
Another wrong-headed idea is that somehow, by having our church and homes a bit stark, with few decorations, and by keeping the Christ Child out of the creche until Christmas, we are “making believe” or denying that He was born. This view insists that we should be in a state of perpetual partying therefore. I call this the “oh well” approach to Christmas — “Oh well, this is how the secular world does it, with Christmas carols and a blaze of decorations the day after Thanksgiving and parties. Might as well go along.”
Is that it? Should we capitulate to the secular (and frankly, commercial-driven) spirit of the age? Ultimately, will it help our children?
This view completely destroys not only Advent but also the Christmas season, which lasts until the Baptism of Christ. Way to take out two, not one, liturgical seasons!
I love singing different songs according to the season.* I love the steady crescendo of Christmas decorating and crafting. (Certainly I am not able to produce a completely decorated house and handmade gifts suddenly, on Christmas Eve.) I love getting together with family and friends. All these things are good.
Saward says, “In the liturgy of His Church, the eternal Word incarnate works wonders with the calendar.”
Pius XII (in that encyclical) says, “the liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church.”
Our children have to learn according to their nature as human beings that Jesus was born, and who He is.
If we follow the liturgy, we see that (in the antiphons and prayers and hymns, so many of which we have to dig out for ourselves, alas) indeed the Church lets us experience Him in a particular and unique way during Advent. We (and our children, year after year) live through the darkness of the People of God. This is reflected in the darkness of the gathering winter. We live through the hidden gestation of Jesus — in the darkness of Mary’s womb. We live through the longing of the Church for His second coming.
Just as a baby takes time to develop in the womb, just as Jesus developed in Mary’s womb, so it takes time for us to experience all these truths, some of which are hidden, just as He was hidden. We need each year, every year, to live through it again. It’s not make believe, any more than we “make believe” in Lent that Jesus hasn’t died on the cross. We are human — this is how we learn.
Here [in the liturgy, continues Pius XII] He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life, going about doing good, with the design of bringing men to know His mysteries and in a way live by them. These mysteries are ever present and active not in a vague and uncertain way as some modern writers hold, but in the way that Catholic doctrine teaches us. According to the Doctors of the Church, they are shining examples of Christian perfection, as well as sources of divine grace, due to the merit and prayers of Christ; they still influence us because each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation. Moreover, our holy Mother the Church, while proposing for our contemplation the mysteries of our Redeemer, asks in her prayers for those gifts which would give her children the greatest possible share in the spirit of these mysteries through the merits of Christ. By means of His inspiration and help and through the cooperation of our wills we can receive from Him living vitality as branches do from the tree and members from the head; thus slowly and laboriously we can transform ourselves “unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.”
It’s truly a miracle of grace that the Church, in her liturgy, keeps all the truths present to us at all times, simply drawing out emphases when we need them. In addition, she takes into account the cosmos — the external world with its seasons and the movements of the stars, all of which affect us as well. Can we trust this accountability of hers? Can we just live it with her? I hope so, because there is no other way.
We will always be getting it wrong when left on our own.
*Everyone loves Christmas carols (although I think many of the beautiful, moving, and theologically intricate ones have slipped away). Not all are alike — some are fitting to the end of Advent, and some really need to be kept until Christmas Day and beyond. But the real question: Who now remembers all the lovely Advent hymns? (A good hymnal will yield treasures. This post directed you to our suggestions.)
I put to you that if we did things in the right order, our celebration of Christmas would be more joyful, not less, and we would understand more about our faith. And we would enjoy singing the Christmas carols more.