In the Catholic tradition, Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year. The blessed Advent season is a time of waiting, preparation, and anticipation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. Today's culture is more materialistic, with less Christ in Christmas and more Santa Claus. The season of Advent is what some might call “a mini Lent.” Advent is a time for prayer, penance, fasting, and almsgiving. I thought it would be helpful to offer a few tips to guide your Advent this year. Here are some suggestions to make the most of Advent:
Spiritual Reflection (Prayer):
Advent Wreath: Consider using an Advent wreath with candles representing hope, peace, joy, and love. The Advent wreath is a significant symbol in Catholic homes and churches. It usually consists of a circle of evergreen branches with four candles, often three purple and one pink. Each candle represents one week of Advent, with the pink candle representing Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent, symbolizing joy). Light one candle each week leading up to Christmas, taking time for reflection and prayer. One candle on the wreath is lit for each week of Advent during family or communal prayer. The progression of lighting candles symbolizes the increasing light of Christ coming into the world.
Daily Devotions: Incorporate daily Scripture readings, reflections, and prayers into your Advent observance. This can be done individually or as a family. You can search online for advent devotionals or look to your local parish for resources.
Acts of Penitence
Sacrament of Reconciliation: Advent is a time of spiritual preparation, and many Catholics take the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) to spiritually prepare for the celebration of Christ's birth. If you are not Catholic, you can consider reflecting on ways that you have turned away from God and how you would like to grow more closely to Him.
Acts of Kindness (Almsgiving):
Advent Calendar of Kindness: Create an Advent calendar that suggests daily acts of kindness. This could include helping a neighbor, volunteering, or offering a kind word to someone in need.
Acts of Service: Carve out time to give back to others. This can be acts of kindness as stated above or it might be providing companionship to someone who is alone or providing financial resources to a charity in need.
Gratitude Journal: Keep a gratitude journal throughout Advent, noting things you are thankful for each day. This practice can cultivate a positive mindset and helps shift us toward a more cheerful disposition. In turn, a gratitude journal creates in us an increased willingness to be kind toward others. For ideas on how to create a Gratitude Journal, click HERE.
Simplify and Reflect (Fasting):
Minimalism: Consider simplifying decorations, activities, and gifts. Reflect on what brings joy and meaning to the season, avoiding excessive materialism. Simplifying might even include using less social media as we can get into the trap of comparing ourselves to others based on what they are doing and choosing to share publicly.
Fasting: Consider fasting or abstaining as a way to prepare your heart for the celebration of Christ's birth.
Family and Community Traditions:
Family Traditions: Family is important, and we fondly remember some of our favorite traditions that we want to continue through adulthood and in our own families. This may include baking, decorating, and singing, to name a few. Use this season to strengthen bonds with family and friends. Plan gatherings or activities that allow for quality time together, while keeping in mind the beauty of simplicity during those events.
Community Events: Attend local events like church services, tree lightings, parades, or charitable activities. Participate in community programs that bring people together during this time of year.
What does this have to do with mental health?
Hope: When we have something to look forward to, it helps us to ruminate less on what we think is wrong with ourselves. We find a lot of joy in the anticipation of something and when we think of others.
Mindset shift: We can fall prey to negativity - but, when we are more intentional about seeing the good around us, we have a more balanced view of ourselves and those around us.
Guidance: When we have a desire for self-improvement, we can sometimes flounder, not knowing where to start. Putting our focus on what is important about the season of Advent can give us structure. It helps to keep us grounded on what is important about the season of Advent and the coming of Jesus Christ.
Permission to say NO: This is giving you permission to say No to things that don’t fit among the events/traditions/obligations that are important to you during this season.
Advent is a time of hopeful waiting - waiting patiently for the birth of our Lord Jesus. If we get too busy and forget the reason for the Christmas season, we can lose our sense of peace during the month of December. My hope for you is that you have a beautiful, peaceful Advent season enjoying time with family and friends and growing closer to God through prayer, penance, fasting, and almsgiving. When the Christmas season begins on December 24, may the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ renew you with unending hope for the coming year!