Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent Customs - It's Not Too Late to Start

Advent began this past weekend and is arguably one of those times when it is easiest for families to draw the liturgical year into their domestic life since there are so many popular customs associated with this time of the liturgical year.

While we are now already into the season (though just), for those of you who haven't already considered adopting some sort of Advent custom or practice, it is never too late to start. Here are some considerations.

I. Advent Wreath

One of the most widely adopted and loved customs of Advent is surely the Advent wreath. While not strictly Catholic in its origins, it nonetheless is easily adapted to Catholic purposes and is a beautiful way to mark the progression of Advent to the Nativity.


Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ, in his work, The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, comments that "in the sixteenth century the custom started of using such lights as a religious symbol of Advent in the houses of the faithful. This practice quickly spread among the Protestants of eastern Germany and was soon accepted by Protestants and Catholics in other parts of the country. Recently it has not only found its way to America, but has been spreading so rapidly that it is already a cherished custom in many homes." He continues: "The traditional symbolism of the Advent wreath reminds the faithful of the Old Testament, when humanity was "sitting in the darkness and in the shadow of death" (Luke 2:79); when the prophets, illumined by God, announced the Redeemer; and when the hearts of men glowed with the desire for the Messiah. The wreath -- an ancient symbol of victory and glory -- symbolizes the "fulfillment of time" in the coming of Christ and the glory of His birth."

There are various variations on the Advent wreath. In North America it is popular to use three violet and one rose candle, symbolizing the respective liturgical colours of the four Sundays of Advent. In Germany, red candles are used. Others might choose to use natural beeswax and mark colours in other ways -- such as ribbons or what not.

As an aside, we talk about the importance, within our churches and liturgies, of using items of beauty and quality. These things not only inspire us and uplift us, they also speak to us of the dignity and value of the sacred mysteries; they speak to the value of what lay underneath. My own recommendation then is that, wherever possible and practical, this should likewise be brought over into the our "domestic churches" as well. Whatever you use, try to use items of beauty and quality. Children (let alone adults) notice these things and it will teach them something about the importance that we attribute to our Faith. This will almost certainly be a memory they take with them into their adulthood -- and it may well serve them in darker times so to speak. In the case of an Advent wreath, I'd recommend the use of real (rather than fake) greenery for your wreathes. And if at all possible, beeswax candles would also be a plus.


II. The Jesse Tree

Another domestic Advent custom is that of the "Jesse Tree."

From Catholic Culture:
Jesse was the father of the great King David of the Old Testament. He is often looked upon as the first person in the genealogy of Jesus.

In Church art a design developed showing the relationship of Jesus with Jesse and other biblical personages. This design showed a branched tree growing from a reclining figure of Jesse. The various branches had pictures of other Old and New Testament figures who were ancestors of Jesus. At the top of the tree were figures of Mary and Jesus. This design was used mostly in stained glass windows in some of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. The Cathedral of Chartres (which was dedicated in 1260) has a particularly beautiful Jesse Tree window.

Another development in religious art during the Middle Ages was that of Mystery Plays--drama that depicted various Bible stories or lives of Saints and Martyrs. These plays were performed in churches as part of the liturgical celebrations. One such play was based on the Bible account of the fall of Adam and Eve. The "Tree of Life" used during the play was decorated with apples. (Quite possibly this is also the forerunner of our own Christmas tree.)

Combining the two ideas of the stained glass Jesse Tree window and the Tree of Life from the Mystery Play we come up with our Jesse Tree Advent project. This custom has been used for years to help Christians to prepare for Christmas.

What I particularly like about the Jesse Tree, at least as it is proposed by Catholic Culture, is how it incorporates into each day a reading from Sacred Scripture, inclusive of which are many from the Old Testament. We have noted many times here on NLM the typological and mystagogical importance of familiarity with the Old Testament, and this is a great way to familiarize yourself and your family with these. (And needless to say, putting the other aspects aside which are more oriented toward children, even those without children could profit from simply using these readings during Advent, particularly with lectio divina in mind.)

Here are the readings noted by Catholic Culture along with some suggested symbols for a Jesse Tree project (and do note how the "O" Antiphons of Advent are tied into):

December 1 Creation: Gen. 1:1-31; 2:1-4 Symbols: sun, moon, stars, animals, earth
December 2 Adam and Eve: Gen. 2:7-9, 18-24 Symbols: tree, man, woman
December 3 Fall of Man: Gen. 3:1-7 and 23-24 Symbols: tree, serpent, apple with bite
December 4 Noah: Gen. 6:5-8, 13-22; 7:17, 23, 24; 8:1, 6-22 Symbols: ark, animals, dove, rainbow
December 5 Abraham: Gen. 12:1-3 Symbols: torch, sword, mountain
December 6 Isaac: Gen. 22:1-14 Symbols: bundle of wood, altar, ram in bush
December 7 Jacob: Gen. 25:1-34; 28:10-15 Symbols: kettle, ladder
December 8 Joseph: Gen. 37:23-28; 45:3-15 Symbols: bucket, well, silver coins, tunic
December 9 Moses: Ex. 2:1-10 Symbols: baby in basket, river and rushes
December 10 Samuel: 1 Sam. 3:1-18 Symbols: lamp, temple
December 11 Jesse: 1 Sam. 16:1-13 Symbols: crimson robe, shepherd's staff
December 12 David: 1 Sam. 17:12-51 Symbols: slingshot, 6-pointed star
December 13 Solomon: 1 Kings 3:5-14, 16-28 Symbols: scales of justice, temple, two babies and sword
December 14 Joseph: Matt. 1:18-25 Symbols: hammer, saw, chisel, angle
December 15 Mary: Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38 Symbols: lily, crown of stars, pierced heart
December 16 John the Baptist: Mark 1:1-8 Symbols: shell with water, river

On December 17, the Church begins to intensify the preparation for Christmas with the use of the "O" Antiphons during the Liturgy of the Hours. The symbols for the Jesse Tree from December 17 to 23 are based on the "O" Antiphons.

December 17 Jesus is Wisdom: Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus in old Bibles) 24:2; Wisdom 8:1 Symbols: oil lamp, open book
December 18 Jesus is Lord: Ex. 3:2; 20:1 Symbols: burning bush, stone tablets
December 19 Jesus is Flower of Jesse: Isaiah 11:1-3 Symbols: flower, plant with flower
December 20 Jesus is Key of David: Isaiah 22:22 Symbols: key, broken chains
December 21 Jesus is the Radiant Dawn: Psalm 19:6-7 (in older Bibles this will be Psalm 18) Symbols: sun rising or high in sky
December 22 Jesus is King of the Gentiles: Psalm 2:7-8; Ephesians 2:14-20 Symbols: crown, scepter
December 23 Jesus is Emmanuel: Isaiah 7:14; 33:22 Symbols: tablets of stone, chalice and host
December 24 Jesus is Light of the World: John 1:1-14 Symbols: candle, flame, sun

Read more about it on Catholic Culture.


III. Divine Office

In the past year or two, the Pope has made a call that all of the faithful should become familiarized with the Divine Office, Advent may be the perfect opportunity for you to begin reciting the Office -- perhaps Vespers would be a good start. Or for those who are not beginners, but have simply fallen out of the habit of praying the Divine Office, might I encourage you to use Advent as an opportunity to rekindle that habit.