Over the course of my childhood, our home was a beehive of activity during Advent. The centerpiece during that liturgical season was the Advent wreath, and I remember vividly the kids always vying for the privilege to both light the candles and to blow them out. We would generally gather for the daily prayers around the wreath before one of the family meals.
Beyond that spiritual preparation for Christ, there was also a month-long preparation for the practical family celebration of Christmas. My mom was from a family of nine children, and seven of them also married and had large families, and our house was the gathering point on Christmas day. Between the extended family and friends, we would easily have over 100 people pass through our house on Christmas morning for breakfast / brunch / lunch which all kind of blended into one long feast.
To host such a gathering required lots of preparation — which was a big part of our Advent as a family. Lots and lots of baking needed to be done, from all kinds of cookies, to rolls, to candy canes, fudge and more. Every fall we would gather hickory and walnuts, and this time of year we would spend hours picking out the meat of the nuts for baking. And of course, the home had to be decorated, gifts made or bought, and then wrapped.
Christmas was a huge celebration in our home, and to a certain extent, so was Advent — the month leading up to Christmas with all the preparation it required. At the heart of it all was mom, and she made all the work enjoyable. It goes without saying that all of this revolved around the life of the parish — Mass, reconciliation and helping the parish with all the preparations necessary there as well. Most of our family was involved at some level of the parish, from servers, to choir members to lectors.
Advent is such a time — a time of preparation. There is a close analogy between the activity of a family or parish preparing for Christmas to the spiritual preparations of each person for Advent — for the coming of Christ — not just at Christmas, but at the end of time.
Advent is a Latin word meaning “coming.” During the four weeks of Advent we prepare for the three comings of Christ: in the flesh when he was born in Bethlehem; into our hearts as we experience deeper realms of conversion as his disciples; and at the end of time.
While the culture around us tends to put all the focus on the day of Christmas — and most especially on the consumer aspect of buying gifts, we all know the demands and/or distractions that brings into our own lives. We are preparing on the first level for the coming of Christ, to celebrate the day Christ was born in a manger.
But it is also necessary to go deeper on a personal level, to make sure we are welcoming Christ into our lives. This might look a bit like making all the practical preparations for Christmas with joy, doing the many tasks with greater love. Preparing for Christ to come into my own life means working diligently to grow in virtue, to change from self-serving motivations to self-giving.
Saint Fulgentus of Ruspe describes such change this way: “Here on earth they are changed … they are enlightened and converted, thus passing from death to life, sinfulness to holiness, unbelief to faith, and evil actions to holy life.” Our conversion in this life is ultimately a gift from God, rooted in welcoming Christ into our life. When Christ comes into one’s life, this is what guarantees our celebration in eternal life. It is not something we do on our own, but rather something that Christ works within us by grace.
So, as we make our Advent preparations for Christmas, let us be mindful of what Christ is seeking to accomplish within us. Let us prepare not only for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, but Christ’s birth and life within us, and ultimately, for his promised return at the end of time.