Going against the grain: Preparing for Christmas through Advent by Father Steven LaBaire

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

This weekend, with the First Sunday of Advent, we begin a new liturgical year.

And, with the start of a new Church Year, we begin a new cycle of Scripture readings at Mass. For the next fifty-two weeks, the Gospel Readings will be taken primarily from the Gospel according to Luke.

The season of Advent–making room for Christ

More Good Foundation Nativity Jesus Chris Mormon, Flickr Creative Commons
More Good Foundation Nativity Jesus Chris Mormon, Flickr Creative Commons

The word “Advent” is derived from a Latin word meaning “coming” or “arrival.” During this brief four-week season of Advent, the liturgy invites us to think about Christ entering our lives from three angles: past, present and future. Christ persistently knocks at the door of our hearts. Do we let him in? Or, like the innkeeper in Bethlehem, do we reply, “There is no room for you here.” And, if we allow Christ into our hearts, how might that change our attitudes, priorities, our schedules? Would we start to rethink our lives? Our past… Where we’re going… And what ultimately matters right now, today.

Obviously wider secular culture doesn’t focus on much on that during the period between Black Friday and Christmas. For the greater number of children, the primary way of preparing for Christmas is to go back and forth to the shopping mall. For many adults these last four weeks become a frenzy to buy and purchase as well as to show up at as many parties and holiday “gatherings” as required. And while joy (hopefully) can be found in both giving to others and in celebrating with others, the net result for all too many is fatigue and stress; a season overloaded with too much.

from http://macooshoes.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/christmas-madness/
from http://macooshoes.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/christmas-madness/

Deep within we know that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make choices. Choices that may differ from the mainstream.

Going against the grain

Often as adults we tell teenagers that it is “OK” and even good to stand apart from “the crowd.” Simplifying this time of year might be an opportunity as adults to practice what we preach.

Here are some thoughts about simplifying and de-cluttering your schedule, if you feel a need to experience a calmer, more reflective season. If you like it just as it is, skip what’s below and have a Blessed Advent! But if you wonder, consider the following:

  • Jesus never said “give lots of gifts to celebrate my birthday.” He did say,” love another, as I have loved you.” (That’s 365 days a year.)
  • It’s OK to say “no” to an invitation. Reasonable people really do understand that it can be a busy time. Reasonable people understand you can’t go to everything. (If they are “unreasonable,” you probably may want to consider why you are going and if you really must go.)
  • Things don’t have to be “perfect” at your gathering. Most people are more touched by the warmth of hospitality rather than a perfectly decorated home or cuisine perfection in every detail.
  • The Christmas Season begins on December 24 and concludes on January 10. You don’t have to cram everything in before December 25. You CAN cram everything in. But remember if you do, that’s a choice YOU make. There’s no rule saying we have to follow “the crowd.” (Yes, in the church calendar, Christmas ends on Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Jan 11)

advent wreath with votives

  • If you want to create memories, think of this: most people remember the experience of being loved and being together. Few of us remember what we got for Christmas 10 years ago. It’s nice to put thought into a gift. But don’t go overboard. And, once you’ve given it to the person, let go. Otherwise it isn’t really a “gift,” you’re still “holding on” to it by thinking about it.
  • If you have friends and family that already have too much “stuff,” consider making a donation to a charity in their name.(Does Uncle Joe really need a fruit cake or another sweater?) Some folks would be delighted to have a donation made to cancer research or to Saint Vincent de Paul in their name.
  • You are NOT responsible for everyone having a good time at Christmas. We can welcome and create an environment of hospitality. Beyond that, each individual makes his or her own choice about whether he or she will enjoy themselves. Don’t clutter your mind with the worry.
  • Gift giving doesn’t have to be an ordeal: If you know people who enjoy going out to dinner, give a gift of a night out to dinner together. If someone could use some extra cash, a monetary gift may very well be what they need. Sometimes we over-complicate the gift-giving of Christmas. We can obsess over getting something “creative” or “distinctive” or finding that “unique gift.” A rule of thumb:
    • What do they need? What would be useful to them? What brings them joy? Between those three, you can figure it out. Keep it simple.
  • The holiday season is a difficult time for many people for reasons ranging from grief to separation to financial difficulties. Respect their feelings. Be kind. Listen. Be compassionate But don’t try to make them “feel” what you feel about Christmas. That’s not your job or responsibility.
  • At some point you may drop the ball: Forget to buy a gift, overlook something you were supposed to do, miss an appointment. Can you forgive yourself? It’s not the end of the world. (Charity begins at home.)
  • If you are working with a group (family, co-workers, parishioners) and are in charge of an event, inevitably someone won’t like some aspect of what you’ve done. Can you live with that? Or are youliving with the child-like fantasy that you can please everyone? If you still cling to the fantasy, beginning to “let go” might be one of the best gifts you give yourself this year.
  • As Catholics, we don’t have to downplay the religious dimension of Christmas when we celebrate. Being Catholic is part of who we are in the same way that being American or of Italian or French heritage or being male or female are aspects of who we are. If the people you gather with love you, they will love you for who you are. No need to downplay your faith. Be who you are and celebrate that.
  • It’s OK to ask questions: Do my kids really need one more thing? Is all the stuff making them kinder, more generous? Can we find ways of downplaying “the stuff” and just have fun together? Or do my kids “need” devices to keep them entertained? Can we do Christmas differently this year? What would happen if we changed our routines? If we try something different and it doesn’t work out, will the sky fall in? Why do we HAVE to things this way every year? And perhaps most importantly: How does Christ fit into all this? Asking the questions doesn’t mean anything has to change. It just opens the door in case they should change.
  • Shawn Rossi Breathe
    Shawn Rossi Breathe, Flickr Creative Commons

    On airplanes we’re advised in the event of urgency to put on our own oxygen masks before attempting to assist the person next to us. When we can’t breathe we can’t help others. It is important to care for ourselves both physically and spiritually. These weeks are no exception. There is nothing noble about “burning out” and “acting out” because we haven’t cared enough for our bodies and souls. Grace enters our lives when we honestly acknowledge our need. Can you hear Christ knocking at the door, yearning to enter?

May the Advent of a new Church Year bring new insights, opportunities and new life.

Happy Advent!