.- During the four weeks of Advent, Catholics in Alaska and around the world are preparing both little manger cribs and their eternal souls for the coming of Christ — one straw of hay and one prayer at a time.
Advent, meaning “to come to” in Latin, is the period before Christmas in which, according to the Catholic Catechism, the faithful anticipate the commemoration of Christ’s birth and “renew their ardent desire for his second coming.”
Like St. John the Baptist, expectant Catholics cultivate the desire that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
Joy and penitence
The Advent wreath symbolizes the season’s mix of joy and penitence. Made of evergreens bound to a circle of wire, the wreath holds four equally spaced candles, three purple and one rose-colored.
The wreath’s circular shape symbolizes eternity; the greenery represents hope. The purple candles signify penance and the rose candle, joy. Together they represent Advent’s four weeks and the four ages between the time of Adam and Eve and Christ’s birth. Traditionally, prayers are recited as the candles are progressively lit across the weeks.
Some Catholic families build a “Jesse Tree” to show how Old Testament events are a part of salvation history, which culminates in Christ’s birth. Onto the tree’s branches are incrementally placed the names of Jesus’ ancestors, in faith or family line, such as Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, David, Mary and others.
Meanwhile, the popular Advent calendar — which can be purchased or made from paper or cloth — usually displays a Christmas-themed scene with 24 “windows” that open to a picture, Bible verse or piece of candy. One window is opened each day, beginning Dec. 1.
Other Advent displays, for the home include, a small nativity scene or crèche. The crèche — first arranged by St. Francis of Assisi — is a tiny model of Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. Models represent the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the stable animals, the Magi, angels and shepherds.
Rosemarie Henn, long-time parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla, recalled that as children, she and her brothers and sisters would place a piece of straw inside Jesus’ empty manger crib for each secret, good deed done during the day. The goal was to build a “soft bed” for the little Jesus who arrived at Christmas.
Another popular custom, in which whole parishes often participate, involves the crèche’s Magi figurines. They start their journey to the nativity scene from some distance within the house or the church. Incrementally, they are moved toward the crèche, until they “arrive” on the eve of Epiphany, 12 days after Christ’s birth.
Despite the frenzied commercialism of Christmastime, area families seem eager to prayerfully engage Advent.
“I think it’s coming back,” said Karen Hay, manager of the Bread of Life Catholic store in Eagle River, adding that Advent wreaths, candles and calendars are selling fast this year.
“Preparing for the coming of the Christ Child can be a disorganized time,” Henn admitted, but added that, “Parents can choose to make it a time of blessing.”
“It is up to parents to use tradition and symbols to instill in their children the awesome wonder of the gift of the Incarnate Word,” she explained.
Brother John Mary Ignatius, of the Congregation Saint John in Belgium, agreed that it is work for families to develop the prayerful joy and penitence proper to the “second most incredible event in the history of humanity,” after Easter.
Brother John will be in the Anchorage Archdiocese in December, where he plans to give three public talks about how Christians can prepare for Advent.
In a phone interview with the Anchor, he said families that light a candle in front of an icon of Mary, read “one little verse” of the Bible and ask, “Jesus, Savior of the world, come into my heart” can bring peace into their homes and prepare for Christ’s coming.
Brother John also suggested that the faithful “be a beggar of the presence of Mary,” and ask her how to receive the Christ Child whom she held and clothed and fed.
Brother John suggested that the faithful model Christ who makes himself a gift at Christmas. To this end, children could make their beds everyday or take out the trash without being asked.
Of her childhood, Henn recalled, “We made an extra effort to be kind to each other and offer annoying behavior from a sibling up in place of our own transgressions,” and they made little sacrifices, “like giving a sibling an extra turn to sled down the hill, or carrying in an extra armload of wood.”
Together as a family
Brother John also said the faithful can “adopt” a poor family during Advent or volunteer at church or in the local soup kitchen. These gestures are important he said because “we can’t tell a Christian family from a pagan family except that we love one another.”
As a part of the “joyful penance” of Advent, Brother John also suggested a fast, for example, eating two smaller than normal meals once or twice a week. He said such a fast is designed to “purify the body in order to allow it to fly unto God.”
A ‘massive discovery’
All of Advent’s symbols, activities, prayers and almsgiving help Catholics acknowledge and prepare their souls for a massive discovery, Brother John said.
“We have a Savior,” he reflected — one who saves mankind from “eternal death, from evil, from our own misery.”
And ultimately, “Christ is coming back in glory,” he said. “It is a joy and privilege to await him day in and day out.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper from the Diocese of Anchorage.