Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginning Advent

A Blessed Advent to everyone! Although the first week of Advent always sneaks up on us, we were somewhat prepared this year. At this point we have established several family customs for the Advent season, including the traditional Advent wreath.

The origin of the Advent wreath is uncertain, although most seem to trace it back to 19th century Germany. What seems clear is that, like so many Catholic feasts, the use of the Advent wreath can be linked to the seasons. Even in pre-Christian Scandinavia, for example, a circular wheel would be decorated with candles to symbolize the gods turning the wheel of the Earth back toward the sun for warmth and longer days. With the dawn of Christianity, this already beautiful symbolism is enriched and deepened. Not only do we long for warmth and the return of the sun (unless you live in Phoenix, of course), but we yearn at the core of our innermost being for the Light of the World, Christ.

The traditional Advent wreath is decorated with various types of evergreens, including pine, laurel, holly, yew and cedar. We used pine branches this year as in years before. This year I want to add a new dimension to our Advent wreath custom and add a bit of new greenery each week when we light a new candle. As of right now, the wreath is made of pine branches with four small pinecones. Next week I plan to add a bit of holly. The four candles are lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent, with the pink candle reserved for the third Sunday, also known as Gaudete Sunday.

The Advent wreath is a beautiful way to anticipate that coming and stir up the longing for Christ in our souls. Incidentally, in fact,  the first Sunday of Advent used to be known as "Stir-Up Sunday." Families would spend all day preparing the Christmas pudding or mincemeat so that the flavors could mix and deepen by Christmas. We haven't adopted this custom in our family as of yet, although I'm sure we will in future years when we have more tummies at the table and cooks in the kitchen. Our celebration is very simple: we have a feast. We begin the dinner with the lights off and bring the Advent wreath to the table (unlit, of course). Then Papa says this blessing:

All make the sign of the cross.  The Papa begins:
Our help is in the name of the Lord.

All Respond:
Who made heaven and earth.

The Papa introduces the Blessing:
In the short days and long nights of Advent, we realize how we are always waiting for deliverance, always needing salvation by our God.  Around this wreath, we shall remember God’s promise.

Then Scripture is Read:
Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah:  (Is 9: 1-2)

The people who walked in darkness
Have  seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
A light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
And great rejoicing.

The Papa concludes:
The word of the Lord.
All respond:
Thanks be to God.

After a time of silence, all join in prayers of intercession and in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Papa invites:
Let us now pray for God’s blessing upon us and upon this wreath.

After a short silence, the Papa prays:
Lord our God, we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ: he is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples, he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us, he is the savior of every naion.

Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath.  May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation.  May he come quickly and not delay.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


The first candle is then lit.

The Papa says:
Let us bless the Lord.

All respond making the sign of the cross:
Thanks be to God.

The blessing concludes with a verse from “O Come, O  Come, Emmanuel.”
O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of mankind.
Bid every sad division cease
And be thyself our Prince of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

After the blessing, we feast and conclude the night with family prayers around the Advent wreath. We light our wreath at every meal and during family prayers. The girls and I begin each morning by praying around the wreath and asking Christ to come quickly and not delay. We finish each day with evening prayer around the wreath. In short, the Advent wreath is involved in all of the most important moments of the day. This is what I love about sacramentals like the Advent wreath. They're not just decorations that make the house look pretty and festive while they collect dust in the corner. Sacramentals share in and beautify the activity of the family. This is why they must be beautiful. 

We will post more about the Advent season in days to come. If you don't have an Advent wreath yet, it's not too late! I will conclude with a short meditation by one of my favorite authors, Sigrid Undset:

As our knowledge of nature has widened our picture of the time and space which God encompasses we lose, more and more, our ability to believe that the strength of the Almighty to permeate all things is indeed all-powerful. And involuntarily we picture God as a sort of cosmic landlord: it is impossible for Him to interest Himself in and to love each individual life which crawls on this remote speck of earth amidst the dancing of the myriad stars. Or we look on Him as a sort of Director General for the great combine of the United Solar Systems. He cannot know personally each little functionary who works on a small planet rotating around a sun of quite insignificant size...."

In the museums and monastic libraries of Europe there is volume after volume of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. If ever artists have worked to give their best and most beautiful without a thought of winning glory or credit for themselves it is certainly these anonymous painters whose identity is only occasionally discovered, and whose reward went to the whole brotherhood. This is indeed art for art's sake, pure, clean passion for beauty-inspired by the mind's constant occupation with the loveliness of God, who has created us in His image so that we also can realise the joy of creation. Year in and year out the craftsman sat and painted borders with flowers shining like jewels, with playful birds and clinging vines on the smooth, yellowish-white parchment. The frames, which the capital letters required, he filled out with a polished gold ground and with delightful small pictures, the faces of saints, not so big as wood-anemones, drawn with lines as fine as the veins in the anemone petals. Not for a moment would the artist contemplate that anyone else except himself should suspect what an amount of care and love he had put into his work, but each little flower was painted in order that it should be perfect in itself, without thought whether anyone was ever going to study it carefully. Perhaps this maker of pictures can help us, not to understand, but to get a glimmering of God's great love for His creation, which caused Him to come to His own as a little child in a crib and to die upon the cross to save each soul He had created in His image-to perfect one tiny little forget-me-not in the eternal manuscript of the universe.

May the Domestic Church also strive to "give their best and most beautiful without a thought of winning glory or credit for themselves," this Advent and always.

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