How can I keep Advent sacred?

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Dear Father: 

In our culture it seems that celebrating Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. Stores get out the Christmas merchandise in October! As a grandmother, I want to instill in my grandchildren the importance and sacredness of Advent. How can I achieve this? 

— Grandmother in Kentucky

Dear Grandmother in Kentucky: Taking the time to think about ways to hand on the faith and capture the imagination of your grandchildren for Christ is a wonderful adventure both in teaching and learning. Grandparents are often in a great position when it comes to enhancing family celebrations and passing on traditions.

Pray to the Holy Spirit to ask how you might bring Advent into greater focus in your life, your home, and for your grandchildren. I am of the opinion that we need not be overly negative about what happens at the mall if we are willing to use creatively our own space and conversation to invite others to see the deeper meaning of Advent and Christmas. 

If they are of age, invite your grandchildren to go with you to the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Here, you do not need to say too much — only that it is important to prepare for the coming of Christ: in the Eucharist, at Christmas, and at the end of the world. 

Sometimes we forget to explain basic terms to young people. We ourselves might not really know the meanings of words we have used for a long time, especially in liturgical prayer, such as hosanna, alleluia, Zion, and others.  Explain the seasonal terms and learn their etymologies — word sleuthing can be appealing to young minds; it is like cracking a code. Advent, nativity, epiphany are a few words of the season to look up. 

Familiarize yourself ahead of time with the sacred Scripture readings for Advent. Find those great passages from the prophets that speak of hope in the Messiah and of conversion. Also, the figure of St. John the Baptist, who calls us to conversion, is as compelling now as he was to the crowds who heard him. Any grandson is bound to be drawn to this prophet who lived on locusts and honey. There are several options for annual Advent companions that you can find from Catholic publishers. The point here is to get to the history of human hope and God’s promise to answer that longing. His answer is his Son, Jesus Christ. 

Also, pick up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, go to the index, look up “Advent,” turn to each passage indicated, and read it. Your meditation on the mystery will enhance your own joy and eagerness to share the Christian life. 

Get an Advent wreath and perhaps bake a treat for each Sunday. Look around the parishes in your area; some parishes now have great wreath-making events. Don’t forget that colored construction paper may be used with paper flames pasted each Sunday. If you attend Mass with your grandchildren, try to sit up close when the parish wreath is blessed. A church supply store or catalogue also might offer a Christian-themed Advent calendar with chocolates and Bible verses. 

Remember that Dec. 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas, one of the most venerated saints in both the Eastern and Western Church. Familiarize yourself with the story of St. Nicholas, especially about the poor young ladies who would have been kept from marrying because they lacked resources. This very fatherly saint provided for them; he had a heart for those in need. 

I have seen some grandparents who instruct with a sense of humor. You might want to think about dressing in purple on Advent Sundays, though many grandfathers might wince a bit at wearing a pink or rose shirt or tie on Gaudete Sunday. On that third Sunday of Advent, we find a wonderful moment for a vocabulary lesson. A great part of our tradition is the richness of language. Gaudete is a Latin command meaning “Rejoice!”  God works for our eternal happiness, and we rejoice because he is close to us.  

Set up your Nativity scene, and if possible let your grandchildren see it during Advent without the figures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Even after Christmas Day, some people set up the figures of the Magi and camels remotely, only gradually bringing them closer and then to the crib on the Epiphany. The activity of changing the scene throughout the season brings focus to the central event of the season. The story of St. Francis of Assisi representing the Nativity of Christ is also worth knowing and sharing with your grandchildren. 

If your parish has a giving tree, select an ornament with your grandchildren. So often during Advent, all our young people think about is what they will get for Christmas. Here is an opportunity to train a Christian moral imagination by helping your grandchildren enter into the joy of giving. Even though the ornaments do not name the recipients of the gifts, you can include them in your Advent prayers and invite your grandchildren to do the same. 

Check your local parish or area for an opportunity to attend services usually called “Advent Lessons and Carols.” In many places this is an opportunity to hear great choral and instrumental music that focuses on Advent, alternating with Advent Scripture readings. Invite the grandchildren to dress up a bit for the event and attend the reception afterward. If there is no reception, make your own or find a good diner with a large dessert selection. 

Finally, Dec. 16–24 is the homestretch, sometimes called the Christmas Novena. On the internet you can find various versions of a prayer written for this space of days in 1721 by Italian Vincentian Fr. Charles Vachetta. The novena also makes use of the O antiphons, which are expressive of the people’s intensified longing for Christ to appear. Look also to parishes that have Spanish-speaking Catholics to see if there is any celebration of Las Posadas (a word meaning “lodgings”), which is a reenactment with song and celebration of Joseph and Mary seeking a place for our Savior to be born. Here the nine days also allude to the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. 

Whatever Advent preparations you choose, enjoy them with your family as you join with the whole Church in awaiting the coming of Our Lord and Savior at Christmas!  

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