It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of the Christmas season. We know in our hearts that this is supposed to be a time of peace and joy and love, a season set apart for spiritual depth and growth—but it can be hard to pull that off when we’re being bombarded by blaring holiday music and a non-stop push to buy, buy, buy. So how can we bring a sense of calm and a focus on faith to this increasingly secular season? By getting back to basics, beginning with Advent.
Our faith gives us so many beautiful traditions to keep us moving in the right direction, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Epiphany and beyond. Whenever we feel ourselves being pulled off course, we can refocus and return to a ritual, a prayer, a tradition that is sure to restore some serenity. And if we can’t find a ritual that fits, we can create some of our own – those are the things that often make the best Christmas memories.
‘Tis the Season
Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Matthew West remembers how his parents always read the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel before any presents could be opened Christmas morning. At the time, the waiting seemed like “punishment.” Looking back now, he says it helped him realize “there is no gift greater than the gift of the Savior.” That’s a message West feels our society desperately needs.
“The chaos that has become Christmas is anything but Christ-focused these days,” he explains. “From the advertising to the shopping to everybody trying to take Christ out of this season, my wife and myself feel we have to make [Jesus] that much more of a priority if we want our kids to grow up knowing what Christmas is about and where true joy is found, not only at Christmas but all throughout the year.”
Making Jesus a priority would seem easy enough during a season dedicated to celebrating His birth, but there’s no denying the many distractions that get in the way of that goal. From the things we need to do – buy gifts for loved ones, put up the tree, host a family dinner – to the unnecessary stresses we put on ourselves, we often allow beautiful rituals and traditions to become chores and burdens. It’s time to reclaim this season!
The physical structure of Advent itself can put us in a reflective state of mind if we give ourselves the time to stop and notice. For instance, think of the stark contrasts that pull us in and beckon us to linger a bit. As we light candles on the Advent wreath, day after day, week after week, our corner of the world begins to burn brighter even as the days grow shorter and the darkness outside grows deeper. We are told, “Be not afraid,” and so we look to the Light, read the Scriptures, and prepare the way of the Lord.
That simple act of stopping once each day – perhaps just before dinner or just after dinner – to light a candle, reflect on the “reason for the season” and pray – is enough in and of itself to start to set things right. It’s amazing what just five minutes of quiet prayer can do for our sanity and our soul. But this is just the beginning. With each day, we can add layer upon layer of spiritual reflection and celebration to our lives until we are practically bursting with joy come Christmas morning.
Along with the Advent wreath, the beautiful traditions of the Advent calendar or the Jesse Tree provide yet more opportunities to bring God’s presence more fully into our home each day. Opening the doors of the calendar or hanging a symbolic ornament on the Jesse Tree serve as small but constant reminders that this season is about far more than writing out cards, wrapping gifts, and baking cookies. But even those seemingly secular things can be filled with grace when we approach them with love and joy and the sense of wonder that this season deserves.
Stringing lights, playing carols, even singing silly songs about snowmen with our children or grandchildren can take on the aura of a sacred ritual when we approach it with joy and revel in the love moving among us, love that has been reverberating around the world since that first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago. No one says being spiritually focused on Christmas means being a Scrooge about all the fun stuff. It’s about balance, and you can enjoy the best of both worlds during this festive time of year, and bring glad tidings of great joy to everyone around you.
“And the word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” – John 1:14
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
God among us. What an amazing gift the Incarnation is for each one of us. We recognize it at Christmas, but do we let it go deeper than that? Does the birth of Christ affect our daily reality, our lives, our choices?
Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Sarah Hart used her musical gifts to create a Christmas album called “This Winter’s Eve.” One of her goals is to help listeners better understand the great gift of Christ’s Incarnation. In light of the frequent Black Friday chaos we witness in shopping malls and big box stores these days, which Hart likens to Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday, she does her best to live out the message that Christmas isn’t all about presents under the tree.
“I know it probably sounds trite to a lot of people, but the best way to maintain a spirit of love is to give beyond yourself. Find a place to give a little of your money, find a place to give a little of your time. It’s amazing how much Christ comes back to you when you do that,” she said during an interview on Christopher Closeup.
Hart’s relationship with Christ goes back to her “cradle Catholic” childhood. She was raised across the street from a church and used to sneak in an unlocked side door to pray. “For me, Christ was always present and the Incarnation was a very real thing,” she says. “Even as a child, I didn’t question it — and I know that’s a huge gift . . . I feel that God’s always walked with me and never let me go.”
So maybe we need to approach this season, this feast with childlike wonder, the kind of wonder that doesn’t question the gift of the Incarnation, the kind of wonder that leaves us unable to sleep from the sheer excitement of what’s ahead. Do you remember those days? Lying awake wondering what you’d find under the tree the next morning? Sure, as a child it was about presents, but can we stir up that same excitement and wonder for the reality of God among us?
Sometimes stepping outside our own wants and needs is all the motivation we need to restore that sense of wonder and gratitude and celebration. Many churches and communities offer ample opportunities to do things for others during the holiday season. Perhaps you can take a tag or two off a Giving Tree, or maybe even start up a toy collection for children in a poor community or school district. Check with your parish to see if there are some homebound seniors who might enjoy a poinsettia to brighten up their home, or maybe just a few minutes of conversation, or perhaps even holy Communion. Sign up to serve at a soup kitchen if you don’t have any Christmas Day plans. And if you can’t do any of those things, pray for someone you know who might be lonely, sick, worried, or faced with some seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Every time we look outside our own little world and focus on the needs of others, we send out Christ’s love again and again to those around us. And what we often find is that those acts of kindness, when done with unconditional love, transform us more than they transform the people we set out to help.
“Whenever love is authentic and deep, it cannot help but spill out to others. The spillage creates something new, something more,” writes Linda Perrone Rooney in Walking the Disciple’s Path: Eight Steps that Will Change Your Life and the World. “Apparently this is what Jesus is trying to teach us in this step of our discipleship. When we give fully of the love that has been given to us, it spills over and creates something far beyond our initial gift and certainly beyond our expectations. It creates new life in us and in others.”
More than a Day
As we survey the living room after a morning of opening presents and wade through piles of crumpled wrapping paper, we might be inclined to say, “That’s it? All that work and it’s over already?” But the good news is, it’s not over. Don’t be inclined to take down your tree and leave it on the curb on December 27. Let your daily life mirror our church’s liturgical life, where Christmas is celebrated again and again through the Feast of the Epiphany and finally the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Even if your tree can’t make it quite that long, the rest of your Christmas spirit can remain intact through ongoing rituals and traditions.
You can, for example, remove the purple and pink candles from your Advent wreath and place a large white candle – representing Christ – in the center of the wreath and continue to pray daily at mealtime. Or you can keep your crèche prominently displayed and make an intentional act of getting the three Magi from the outer reaches of your living room to the stable in Bethlehem bit by bit, accompanying each daily move with prayer. Or you can play your Christmas music loud and proud even after the local stores have replaced the Christmas decorations with an early push for Valentine’s Day cards.
As Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian parish in Washington, D.C., wrote, “Make room for Jesus, make more and more room for him, in the Inn of your soul and I promise you that what Scripture says is true: ‘Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believe in His name, He gave the power to become children of God.’ (John 1:12)”
“O Father may that Holy Star
Grow every year more bright,
And send its glorious beams afar
To fill the world with light.”
- William Cullen Bryant
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