This year, keep Advent in focus with experts’ tips


By Maria Wiering

Twitter: @ReviewWiering

It is no surprise that Advent is easily lost in the pre-Christmas shuffle. The shopping season is not the only distraction – people often face major deadlines at work, college students are scrambling to finish semesters and families are making travel arrangements. Suddenly the priest is lighting the fourth Advent candle at Mass, and you realize you have not even set out a wreath.

The Catholic Review asked Catholic experts working for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to share their tips via email for mindfully observing Advent, a season anxious yet hopeful, solemn yet joyful, introspective yet selfless – a season where, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church “makes present (the) ancient expectancy of the Messiah,” both for the Christ child born in the manger and Jesus’ second coming.

1.                 Light the candles. Maybe your Advent wreath is an elaborate heirloom or four tea lights on a plate. Either way, having something is suggested. “Traditionally, it has three purple candles and one pink candle (for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent), but white candles with colored ribbons will do,” said Lauri Przybysz, archdiocesan coordinator of family life. “Light another candle each Sunday of Advent and experience the light of Christ growing brighter with each week as you approach Christmas.”

2.                 Feast on feasts. Advent is a good time to get reacquainted with the lives of the saints, said Ruth Puls, director of catechetical and pastoral formation. The season includes several who are likely already familiar. St. Nicholas is Dec. 6, the Immaculate Conception of Mary is Dec. 8, St. Juan Diego is Dec. 9, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is Dec. 12. “They are all feasts of God’s goodness that precede the celebration of God’s goodness to us in his very son,” Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore.

3.                 Pray together. “Choose a short prayer that will be said as a family everyday,” suggests Sister Maria Luz Ortiz, archdiocesan delegate for religious life.

4.                 Share stories. “Advent is a time for family story telling,” said Paulist Father John E. Hurley, director of the archdiocesan Department of Evangelization. “Share with one another how you prepared for Christmas as a child. … Family customs can be rich. For the newly married, it can be time to create your new family customs.”

5.                 Set up the manger scene. Przybysz suggests displaying the crèche early in the Advent season, but also using it as a lesson on “waiting,” especially in households with small children. Make the stable a focal point, but include only the animals at first. Hide the baby Jesus, and put Mary and Joseph on the opposite end of the house, moving them closer to the manger scene each day. Encourage children to place them and Jesus in the stable on Christmas.

6.                 Share yourself. “Understand that sharing yourselves is equally as important as sharing gifts,” said William McCarthy Jr., executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore. “Give the gift of an IOU to yourself to volunteer in one of Catholic Charities programs. Improve a life, maybe your own. Someone needs you.”

7.                 Be together. Families often struggle to find time or resist distractions to being together. Advent is a time to change that, Sister Maria Luz said. “Doing things together brings about community, opportunities to share, celebrate and so on,” she said, especially when the focus is on showing care and concern for others. “Have a day to bake cookies with the whole family,” she said. “Invite someone who is alone for a meal with your family. Offer to serve in a soup kitchen sometime during Advent.”

8.                 Make a Jesse tree. This Advent classic, which displays symbols of key biblical figures who prepared the way for the Messiah, can double as an educational tool and kids’ craft. Przybysz suggests using a real branch or drawing a tree on a poster board, and making the symbols out of felt, paper or dough. Full instructions are available at the archdiocesan family enrichment pages at, under “Advent craft project.”

9.                  Give to others. Stock Santa’s Workshop with gift cards and unwrapped, new toys for families living at Sarah’s House, transitional housing at Fort Meade, Dec. 8 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call Kelly at 410-551-7722. Or, supply toys for the Catholic Charities Head Start Super Store, where parents who volunteer in the programs can “purchase” toys for their families. For more information, contact Kisha Gladden at 410-685-1700.

10.            Learn the O Antiphons. O what, you ask? The “O Antiphons” are vesper antiphons recited in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. They are the titles for the Messiah found in Isaiah – including “O Wisdom,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David” – which may already be familiar through the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Deepening one’s understanding of the antiphons can enhance prayer, Puls said.

11.             Buy (or make) an Advent calendar. “Advent calendars can be a great and simple daily tool to engage one another, especially children and those joining the church, in the realization that something was about to happen that would forever change the course of life,” Father Hurley said.

12.            Heat up the kitchen. Cook or bake favorite foods from Christmases gone by, suggested Bishop Rozanski. “Many of us who come from ethnic traditions cherish the memories of the food that graced our tables during past Christmases,” he said. “The aromas of those foods bring back wonderful soothing memories.”

13.            Read Vatican II documents. The Year of Faith coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. “Four weeks of Advent, four constitutions of Vatican II,” Puls said. “What could be nicer than sitting by a cozy fire reading one Constitution a week to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the council?”

14.             Sponsor a child or family. Many families served by Catholic Charities Child and Family Services’ programs need assistance to celebrate Christmas. For more information, contact Carol Shear at 410-252-4000, ext. 1672.

15.             Reduce clutter. Catherine Combier-Donovan, former archdiocesan director of worship, advises those planning liturgies to cut down on visual clutter and focus on icons and images of biblical figures highlighted by the season. The same advice could be taken for a room, corner or niche of the home that remains undecorated until right before Christmas.

16.            Save the date. Circle Dec. 2 – the first Sunday of Advent –in your planner or wall calendar. “Everyone is prepared for the beginning of Lent because the date for Ash Wednesday is marked on the calendar. Advent kind of ‘sneaks up on us’ after the Feast of Christ the King,” Bishop Rozanski said. “Set time aside during (Dec. 2) for prayer that lifts you up and brings calm and peace into your life.” He suggested using one of the many publications that provide daily reflections, such as the Magnificat.

17.             Seek inspiration. Read something that you want to keep as a reminder? Stick it where you’ll see it. “Put some phrases on the refrigerator door that will help you and your family to think, thank and praise God during Advent,” said Sister Maria.

18.             Surprise your neighbors. “Travel and sing in the neighborhood, making a traditional Las Posadas,” Przybysz said, pointing to the Spanish and Latin American tradition, where children dressed as Mary and Joseph visit each home and ask if they can enter and stay, recalling the couple’s search for an inn. The archdiocesan Department of Evangelization’s Faith-Full Families Newsletter includes more information.

19.             Attend daily Mass. Try to go to daily Mass once or twice a week, suggests Sister Maria Luz. “Invite some members of the family if possible,” she said.

20.             Forget about lines. “Much of the Christmas pressure comes from shopping for the ‘right’ present,” said Bishop Rozanski said. “In lieu of all the time wasted, why not give the gift of a donation in someone’s name to a favorite charity?” He suggests Catholic Charities of Baltimore, which provides donor cards to the person honored by the gift.

21.             Pray the rosary. “Mary is the very model of expectant faith. Expectant faith is living with a confidence that God is always with us, and will see us through all things,” Puls said, adding that praying the rosary is a good way to develop expectant faith. “Praying the rosary as a family, or praying the rosary for your family, is a beautiful way to celebrate Advent and to be still for awhile. All of the hustle and bustle, all of the busyness and craziness gives way to the joy that is Christmas.”

22.            Lend a hand. Know a neighbor who needs help? Offer to assist in putting up Christmas decorations, Bishop Rozanski said. “A visit from a neighbor always cheers up someone who cannot get out of the house very often, and the help you give them will let them appreciate the true spirit of Advent and Christmas,” he said.

23.            Recommit to old staples. Prayer and fasting during Advent help one achieve solidary with Christ and others, Puls said. “We could fast from food or drink, fast from ‘fast living,’ fast from whatever it is that is keeping us from being Christ to others,” she said. “We could pray to be in solidarity with others, asking God to ‘please break my heart with what breaks your heart.’”

24.             Grab a scissors. Build expectation in little ones with a homemade Advent prayer chain. “Cut strips of paper, one for each day of Advent, and write a name or prayer intention on each one,” Przybysz said. “Glue the strips into links and join them into a chain. When you pull off the last link, it’s Christmas!”

25.             Go to confession. “Experiencing the sacrament of reconciliation during Advent enables us to be freed from whatever is keeping us from loving our sisters and brothers more fully,” Puls said.

26.            Watch the news. “Pray for peace to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace,” Przybysz said. “Informed by the daily news, lift up in prayer a different place or situation around the world each day. Always conclude your prayer with a commitment to become a messenger of peace in your family and community.”


Copyright (c) Nov. 29, 2012 

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.