One thing I like about being Catholic is the liturgical year. I enjoy the ritual, the sense of marking time, and the way I can find something awesome to celebrate in every month. Traditions have always been important to me, from how we decorate the Christmas tree as a family to getting ice cream together on the first spring day it hits seventy degrees. These little traditions add flavor to everyday life, and becoming Catholic opened the door for me to celebrate all sorts of new things.
Each month, I am planning to do a blog post with a few of my favorite feasts, and some suggestions of how to celebrate the day. I know other Catholic bloggers have cornered the market on this already (and fantastically so), but I thought I'd chip in a few ideas for others looking to add a bit of tradition to their lives.
For December, Pope Francis's intention is that we all may experience the mercy of God, who never tires of forgiving.
November 29 - December 24: Advent
Advent is the big Catholic tradition I always worry that I'm doing "wrong." There are so many unfamiliar things - Advent wreaths, Jesse trees, certain prayers...It can all seem a bit much. What's necessary and what's not? When you're learning the ins and outs of the church, all of the Advent practices are overwhelming.
As I said in my last post, the first thing I did as a new Catholic was purchase an Advent wreath. You don't have buy anything other than candles, as it's quite easy to make your own. You can get as fancy as you want, or merely make do with four candles in a circle. Each corresponding candle is lit for the four Sundays of Advent, with the pink candle being lit for Gaudete Sunday.
I wanted to do an Advent themed pink and purple Jesse Tree this year, but I wasn't able to swing it in the budget. I am working on making ornaments, and hopefully next year will have some great pictures to share. Basically, the Jesse Tree has ornaments or figurines which symbolize the purpose and promises of God, from creation to the birth of Christ.
When December 17th rolls around, I'm going to try my hand at saying the O Antiphons this year. The O Antiphons are a series of prayers leading up to Christmas which are focused on anticipating the Christ child's arrival. I had never heard of them before, but they are beautiful prayers. It's nice to have some balance - I enjoy putting up my tree early and listening to Christmas carols, but having some specific, Advent-focused practices I can do as well helps me keep focused on what Advent is truly about. Advent is meant to be a season of waiting. In a month of go-go-go, it's good to have a reminder that not everything is meant to be rushed through in a flurry of preparations.
Another way to celebrate Advent is to put out a nativity scene. Some people like to put out one figure at a time as part of a physical Advent calendar, saving the Christ child for last. I like that idea, but I don't have a twenty-five figure set. You don't have to purchase anything, either. My family still places out the baby-peanut-Jesus-in-a-cardboard-tube-manger my little brother made when he was four. It's the thought that counts. Truly.
Although Advent is the big focus of the month, there are some individual solemnities and feasts I try to take time to mark.
For other great ideas to live out Advent, check out the always insightful Like Mother, Like Daughter for their linkup. See how bloggers around the world are preparing for the Christmas season.
December 8: Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Solemnity)
Immaculada by Bartolome Estban Murillo
Hail Mary, full of Grace...
The Hail Mary is a familiar prayer. It's said by nervous flyers in movies and by athletes attempting a pass in football. It's as well-recognized a prayer as the Our Father in pop culture. But not many people could tell you what the Hail Mary actually means.
We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.Catholics believe that Mary was born without original sin, which made her a more perfect vessel to carry Jesus (look it up! Catechism 386-412). Grace is more than just a prayer before meals. Grace is bestowed by God. When we say full of grace during the Hail Mary prayer, we are acknowledging that Mary is - quite literally - full of grace. God had filled her with purity. The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception not only celebrates Mary's status as the Mother of Jesus, but for her state of grace. Without such grace, would she have been capable of saying yes to Gabriel?
— Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854
Symbols of Mary include a crown, often of stars, and lily or lily of the valley. If you have a green thumb, you could take the time to plan a Mary Garden for the spring. Put out a few blooms in a vase for dinner, and if you have the time, you could try your hand at a blue and white themed dinner or dessert (although try not to make it mashed potatoes, pasta, and bread!).
December 12: Our Lady of Guadeloupe (Feast)
For many people, this is the image they associate with Mary. If you live in the United States, Our Lady of Guadeloupe imagery is prevalent. Who hasn't seen the candles at the Mexican grocery, or printed on shirts at a kiosk?
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe celebrates a Marian apparition in Mexico City in 1531 to a peasant named Juan Diego. Mary asked for a church to be built on that site in her honor. Juan Diego tried many times to get the Bishop to believe him, but was only successful after Mary left the above imprint on his tilma. When Juan Diego opened his tilma to show the Bishop proof that Mary had appeared, a shower of roses Juan Diego gathered fell out to reveal this image. Needless to say, the Bishop was convinced and a church was subsequently built.
There are so many fun ways to celebrate this feast - put out a vase of roses, first, in honor of those Castilian roses Juan Diego found. Then, make a Mexican dinner, from something simple like tacos or classic rice with plantains. Follow that with a rosary, or if you're feeling extra committed, a novena to Our Lady.
December 26: St. Stephen (Feast)
Saint Stephen by Carlo Crivelli
I will admit, I didn't know much about St. Stephen. For a long time, all I knew was a reference to him in a Christmas carol.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.
Luckily, this doesn't make me an automatic "Bad Catholic," as none of us know much about St. Stephen. He has been traditionally venerated as the first martyr of the Catholic church, who was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, one of the first deacons of the church. Based on his name, he was likely a Hellenistic Jew. His death was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, who later became the familiar Paul the letter-writing Apostle we all know and mostly love.
In Acts, Stephen is known for distributing alms to the poor, which is where the Good King Wenceslas carol comes in, as the King is en route to give his own alms to the poor on St. Stephen's Day. Even though many countries no longer celebrate St. Stephen's Day, you still see this tradition of giving to the poor on the day after Christmas - it's just called Boxing Day instead.
You can probably see where I'm going with this one. To celebrate? Give. Volunteer your time at a soup kitchen if you don't have the ability to give funds. This time of year is cold - donate coats and blankets for those in need. And - say a prayer for those who are being martyred today. Often, we think of martyrs as a relic of the past. but unfortunately, that's not the case. There are people currently being martyred for their beliefs, whether they are Christian, the "wrong" type of Islam, or nothing at all. Take a moment to pray for those people, and for peace in the Middle East.
December 27: Holy Family (Feast)
The Holy Family by Rafael
Pope Leo XIII promoted the feast of the Holy Family with the hope that it might instill into Christian families the same faithfulness, devotion, and love which characterized Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Although we don't know much about Jesus's childhood, it is evident that the Holy Family had a strong sense of love and faith in one another. For me, family has always been important, and so it's natural for me to gravitate toward this feast. I love the idea of striving to love my family as the Holy Family loved one another.
To celebrate at home, cook dinner as a family, or if you're apart, say a few prayers for one another. If you're looking for a more contemplative way to celebrate, read Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical On Christian Marriage. I have come to appreciate and understand Catholic teachings and sacraments so much more when I began to read encyclicals and other papal documents. Sometimes they can be quite dense, but it is well worth working through it.