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The Advent wreath is an important part in developing rituals for the family in the domestic church. CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr.

Advent on the home front

By  John B. Kostoff and Patricia Dal Ben, Catholic Register Special
  • November 26, 2021

Are we ready for Christ? After almost two years of living through this pandemic, we might feel like we are ready for anything and everything or maybe you are feeling like Charlie Brown just before Lucy pulls the football away.

With continued isolation, fear and uncertainty it is understandable why we might approach the Advent season — beginning Nov. 28 — with some trepidation, but perhaps this year we might remember the “reason for the season” and bring to our kitchen tables and homes a little more optimism and a lot more hope, the hope of Christ in our lives. Wherever you find yourself, if you are reading this, you are probably already doing lots to nurture your domestic church. Kudos to you for continuing to look and learn and build your domestic church during this Advent season! We pray that you might find a spark or an idea in this story on how you can ready your domestic church for the birth of Christ this year and always.

We know that Christ’s light wants to punctuate the darkness and He wants to make His way into our hearts and homes. Let’s use this time to intentionally introduce and revive Advent rituals and traditions that perhaps we couldn’t last year. We have definitely learned how significant our domestic church is to our mental, physical and emotional health. We know that in between the walls of our homes is where we nurture and live out our deep faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The family is the original cell of social life” (2207). It is interesting that when our “social life” was stunted by the pandemic, it was the family that for most of us became so central, so critical and so pivotal to our well-being.

As Sr. Nuala Kenny, SC, writes in her most recent work, A Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities, “the importance of the family as the domestic church has been made absolutely clear.” So, the question becomes what are you going to do this Advent to make your domestic church prepare the way? What will help your family encounter the mystery, wonder and joy of Christ’s coming? We hope this Advent will not be another casualty of the pandemic. As authors who have written and spoken on the domestic church for the last few years, we have been fortunate to hear of the many special Advent rituals, prayers and activities that occur in homes across the country and they have inspired us to continue sharing and supporting families of faith with intentionality.

Advent is an opportunity to create something special, in increments, we grow in preparation and readiness. Advent should allow us time to read, pray, learn, participate and celebrate. So below are some suggestions that we hope you might consider integrating into your domestic church.

RITUAL

As we begin to look at Advent, we might ask, “What rituals do we remember and which rituals might we like to add to our family’s experience of Advent?” We are people of ritual and rite because it helps us make sense of the world.

Our first suggestion for families is to find a place in your home for a sacred space. The ritual of creating, changing and engaging with the sacred space speaks volumes to our encounter with Christ in our domestic church. Most Catholic school classrooms have a sacred space so it is also a great way for students to see parallels in the school, home and Church. This can be done with colour, symbol and ritual.

Gathering around the table for meals is profound and an important experience for the domestic church. Select one of the daily readings and start your meal with the reading. Share with one another what that one reading means to each person. You might not be able to do this on a daily basis but even once a week allows you to connect with the Word. It is amazing how even young children learn to listen to Scripture with intentionality.

Placing an Advent wreath or four candles in a sacred space is also a great ritual to focus the family. This ritual can make our homes a place where we mirror the Church in the tangible expression of Advent. Just as our parish church is visibly different at Advent, draw those same colours into your domestic church, use the purple and pink ribbon and after Christmas the white ribbons as a part of your decorations. Hang the ribbons from your front door. Place an ornament outside attached to purple or pink ribbons for all to see.

Let the outside world know this is Advent. Decorate with Advent colours and add items of light as the days and weeks move closer to Christmas. Light the Advent wreath on Sunday morning or night. Pray, read Scripture or spend a moment in silence to remind each other that with the lighting of the Advent candle each week, we banish a little more darkness and come closer to the light of the world.

We often used the images of the Jesse tree in our classrooms as a way of teaching the events that led up to Christ’s birth and as a way of coming to know Christ’s domestic church. This is a great ritual for young and old and allows you to dig deeper into the Scripture associated with each image.

The symbols point to Christ’s lineage and God’s presence throughout time. The images uncover key readings in both the Old and New Testament. The symbols of the Jesse tree can be placed on your Christmas tree, fridge or window. The symbols and Scripture readings are easily found on the Internet and in libraries.

Celebrating and remembering those who have died or are no longer able to celebrate Advent with you can be done by adding a simply decorated Christmas ball with their name. Let our tree be a sign of our passage as a family. In the Jewish tradition, the power of saying a name and remembering a name is important in understanding our connection as a family of God.

Many people today with young children have a toy elf that children look for in the days leading up to Christmas. Why not add a wrinkle to this by putting the crèche out at the beginning of Advent? Have the figures move about in your home. Have the children look for Mary and Joseph, for the wise men, for the shepherds, and reveal just a little about each person when they are found. Each day move them closer to the stable; journey with them as they journeyed. 

This time is also often a period of baking, so now that we can safely gather in larger groups, bring family together to bake, share stories and create memories. A quick Internet search of “Advent baking” will bring you to some great recipes that connect cultural and scriptural expressions of the liturgical season. Baking can also be a way of reaching out in the community and creating time for those who might need assistance or company. One of our favourite ideas is baking a birthday cake for Jesus. You can bake it either from scratch or use a store bought product. Maybe start your Christmas morning with a rendition of Happy Birthday!

PRAYER

We often have a deep desire to increase our prayer life but the business and messiness of families these days can often foil our good intentions. Focus on adding just one Scripture to your day or find an Advent prayer for the week that focuses on each of the four themes of Advent: peace, hope, joy and love. Maybe focus on one book or prophet during this Advent season. Cut the Scripture readings out and place them in a bowl. Select one each day or week to focus on. Here are some Scripture readings you might consider.

Week One: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 19, Matthew 15:29-37, Isaiah 26:1-6, Psalm 27, Isaiah 30:19-21

Week Two: Luke 3:1-6, Psalm 85, Matthew18:12-14, Luke 1:26-38, Isaiah 14:13-20, Psalm 1, Psalm 80, Isaiah 54:1-10

Week Three: Isaiah 12, Luke 3:10-19, Psalm 25, Luke 7:19-23, Psalm 30, Matthew 1:1-17, Psalm 72

Week Four: Isaiah 52:7-10, Jeremiah 23:5-8, Psalm 80, Luke 1:39-45, Psalm 24, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1:46-56, John 1:1-18

Add Advent icons or religious items to your sacred space — perhaps a picture of St. Nicholas or Our Lady of Guadalupe, who both have feast days during Advent. Spend some time discovering who they were and the charism that they share. Include pictures of family members who have gone to their rest in your sacred space as a way of understanding the promise of salvation.

Instead of starting each meal with a prayer, try ending with a prayer of thanksgiving or both. Give each family member an opportunity to lead a prayer of thanks. Read parts of the infancy narratives each night before bed imagining the Holy Family during these joyful and yet difficult times.

Whether your Christmas tree be real or artificial or if you just bring in a few green boughs, begin as a family to bless them before you install them in to your home. A simple prayer ensures that the Advent season is a period of prayer. At the end of the season don’t just toss the tree out or pack it up, have a moment of prayer for the season, for hope and for thanksgiving of the many blessings we can find in our world and domestic church.

Create your own blessings. Take a moment and write down what you want to say when you put up the Christmas tree, or set up the Advent wreath, or the crèche, or your Christmas Eve meal or Christmas dinner meal, or your first meal on New Year’s Day. Don’t let these events slip by; create moments of blessings, moments of praise and dedication.

On Christmas day, before the hectic rush to Church, or to view the Christmas Mass on TV, before opening presents or preparing a meal, gather around the Advent wreath, sacred space or Christmas tree and say a prayer of thanks for this day. Christmas should be a culmination of your Advent journey. This is the time to bring out the white ribbon and place it on the tree, or in the window or on the outside door. Christ is born!

SERVICE

As we prepare for Advent the voice of the poor cries out in our Scripture, the disenfranchised, the weak. So look for a special way to reach out to those not at your table. Our faith is nothing if it is not outwardly expressed in our communities.

Prepare a meal for a shut-in, make extra food and take it to someone on your street or in your apartment building who is struggling with food insecurity. Contact your local food bank to see what they need. Intentionally shop for those who use the food bank. Start a food collection be it at work or school, and invite people to donate a canned good that can go to a local charity.

Make service a family event! As a family, set money aside for a local charity: the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Canadian Food For Children, Chalice etc. We know that there is great need in our world and as Catholics we are responsible to do all we can to support those in need.

If you are able to, give blood at a local blood bank. Share your blessings. Reach out to a senior home or a long-term care facility and ask what you could offer.

The point is, we must use this period of Advent not just to do good for those we like or know, or who are like us but those we don’t know or even understand.

One family shared with us that they save up money and then buy mittens, gloves, hats and coffee gift cards. Together they distribute them to homeless people on the sidewalks and doorways in their community during Advent. What a great testament to making the Word become an active expression of our faith tradition.

Reach out to the local hospital. Send Christmas cards to those who are incarcerated, phone people, Zoom calls with the lonely, the sick or those who have little family support. If you have the time, and you have the desire offer to assist at a local home with Christmas dinner, often these intuitions are short staffed on Christmas. 

The point is, be like the Church reaching out to offer comfort during this period of Advent. Hear the voice of the poor, the ill, the forgotten. As a young man used to say when we were doing these types of activities, “I think we are into memory-building experiences.” And he was right, this is what we recount when we talk about Christmas. Let it be a true season of giving.

Punctuate the Advent time with periods of prayer, praying of the rosary, on walks and visits to those who have been shut out. Make it a period of baking, of Christmas carols and Christmas movies, or reaching out to those who are in need. Decorating our homes, remembering those no longer with us but ever present. Do not despise the secular experience of Christmas offered by a consumerist society — build on it, weave in your faith and project your own meaning into this time.

In the end, if you only install a few of the suggestions you will create memories that plummet the deep mystery of this season. As a domestic church, don’t let your family sleep through Advent only to wake up the day after Christmas with an empty feeling or a sense of letdown. Let this be a period of renewed hope and celebration in your home. Let the words of T.S. Elliot not be true this Advent, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

(John B. Kostoff and Patricia Dal Ben are the authors of One Home at a Time: Realizing and Living out Our Domestic Church published by Novalis.)

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