The first Sunday of Advent is this weekend. This day marks the beginning of our liturgical calendar and begins several weeks of preparation for Christmas. As a Catholic family, it is difficult to keep the spirit of relative solemnity and preparation among a culture that since before Thanksgiving has been in full-fledged celebration of that for which we are preparing. And while it will always grate on my nerves when people talk about the 12 Days of Christmas as the days before the 25th (especially when it comes to 12 Days of Sales!!), I do not cheat our family out of the extra weeks of joy. I am not going to wait until the 24th to put up Christmas decorations; we will happily sing along to Advent and Christmas music alike; we will make cookies, go to the Nutcracker, make and give gifts, decorate our tree. Of course, decorations will stay up through Epiphany!
That being said, I do think it is important to acknowledge the season of Advent as one of preparation and reflection. When I was in elementary school, a teacher told me that every time we made a small sacrifice, gave thanks, acted with extra kindness or patience, said an extra prayer, we were adding straw and warmth to the manger Jesus would be born in. That imagery has stuck with me for thirty years, so it is one I am sharing with my family this Advent season. Because this year more than any other, our hearts need a little help preparing for the joy of Christmas.
Experiencing hurricane Maria from a distance has been difficult. Obviously, not in any way that compares to the real life experience of our friends and family in Puerto Rico living through the nightmare (some of whom are confident will reach their 100th day of no power), but difficult in feeling powerless; difficult in the way that you hurt for those you love; difficult in the frustration of not being able to ease or share their burden. We were blessed to have much of our family visit for the week of Thanksgiving. Nineteen people under our roof, a handful more down the street, made for a crowded, loud, wonderful, joy- and laughter-filled Thanksgiving. But it has never been so hard to say goodbye. Even a week later I find myself blinking back tears, see my kids doing the same at unexpected moments. They are fine one second, quiet and withdrawn the next. Something as simple as playing a card game we played with their cousins can trigger it. None of us has been able to shake this cloud of sadness, this feeling of wanting them here instead of there, and it seems we need Jesus more than anything – His love, hope, joy, peace for our hearts.
Well, the timing couldn’t be better. Advent is sometimes referred to as the “little Lent”, so why not take a page out of our other time of preparation to help prepare our hearts for Christmas? Lent is a time of giving – for many giving up something we love, but also giving extra kindness, giving thanks, giving time to God. And so will it be for Advent. Now more than ever we see how much we have to be thankful for, how much we take for granted. When our tree goes up this Sunday, I want it to be a visual reminder of that. Every time we give thanks, every time we give something up, every time we give a little extra kindness, every time we give some time to God in prayer, we will write it on an ornament and add it to the tree. Whatever we give – appreciation for the weather, cleaning someone else’s room, donating to the coat drive, an extra rosary, time with Scripture, a story for a younger sibling – it will be marked and displayed, our own version of adding hay and warmth to that manger. Our giving tree. And next year, when we again pull out those ornaments, now marked with these acts of love, I hope we can look back and see how things have changed for those hurricane victims, and how our hearts were transformed during this special Advent and Christmas season.
I wish you all, especially our much loved Boricua family, a joyful Advent and Feliz Navidad.