By Sister M. Catherine Ditto
Recently I had an opportunity to meditate on the beauty of the Advent and Christmas season as a sister. My natural family celebrated certain customs that made these times beautiful – we had an Advent wreath, a nativity set that “travelled” to Bethlehem throughout Advent, etc. And we had a certain ritual for gift-opening on Christmas morning, led by my father who handed out the gifts. But when I began to experience these seasons as a sister, their richness touched my soul and the spiritual meaning of the seasons became still deeper.
In Advent, for example, we gather together each Sunday to light the newest candle on the wreath and one of the sisters prepares a meditation as we consciously await Christ’s coming and prepare our hearts to welcome him again at Christmas. We sing beautiful Advent songs which express this longing, the need for repentance (as expressed in the message from John the Baptist) and the nearness of our Lord. One song I especially like is in German, and it describes the beautiful winter landscape and the preparations we are making, since “Christkind kommt bald” – the Christ Child is coming soon!
A very special Advent tradition in community comes from the German and Hispanic traditions: Shelter Seeking (Herbergsuche or posadas). On the nine nights before Christmas, we carry a little statue of the Blessed Mother throughout the house to various rooms, while singing Advent hymns, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” At each room, a different sister (or group of sisters) prepares a little throne and a prayer to welcome the Blessed Mother to take shelter there for the evening on her journey to Bethlehem. During the procession we all carry lighted candles, which remind us that the Light of the World will soon be here. With each evening the excitement grows, because we know that Christmas is coming closer! In the last few days of this novena, we start the official decorating for Christmas, putting up trees, lights, nativity scenes, etc.
On Christmas Eve we celebrate with a special prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, thanking Jesus for the gifts of the past year and offering him our Advent striving to prepare our hearts for his birth. We then process from the chapel to our dining room. We read the Christmas Gospel and exchange joyful Christmas wishes. That evening we attend Midnight Mass. Of course, the natural joys are also there – special food, cookies, Christmas music, and more!
But Christmas doesn’t end on the 25th. No, it only begins! We celebrate throughout the season, all through the Octave of Christmas (including the Motherhood of Mary on January 1) and up through the Feast of the Three Kings (Epiphany – January 6 or the Sunday closest). During all this time, we gather together when possible to sing Christmas songs and read Christmas stories.
Our Advent and Christmas seasons are then filled with meaningful and rich traditions which bring the liturgical year to life for us. In our hearts we may truly rejoice that once again, Jesus has come to earth as a small, helpless baby, to make God’s presence and love tangible to each of his children.