Reclaiming the Peaceful Quiet of Advent

Reclaiming the Peaceful Quiet of Advent

Advent is just around the corner so I thought I’d share what my Advent plans are for my family. Advent has become one of my favorite times of the year, and it has become for me a season of quiet and peaceful waiting. It wasn’t always this way, but through some careful decisions about how I’ve wanted to observe this season, I think it has become that season of joyful anticipation it is meant to be.

In this season that is typically high stress for so many people, I see more than ever the wisdom of Mother Church doing things differently. The Church says, “Right now is not the Christmas season. This is the season of Advent, which is a season of waiting and preparing. It can be hard to wait, but don’t worry; the celebration will come in its own time.” I think when we jump the gun and try to start the celebration too soon, it’s hard to fully celebrate. We may be trying to celebrate and get into the Christmas spirit, but our minds are so busy running through their mental checklists of all the things we have yet to do to get ready for Christmas: put up the decorations, bake the Christmas cookies, build the gingerbread house with the kids, see the lights, buy the gifts, wrap them all, send them out, plan the Christmas party, attend the parties, make and send the Christmas cards and on and on! Christmas Day happens which has its own kind of busyness, and then whew! Just like that it’s all over. Seems like a recipe for stress, guilt about all the things we couldn’t get to, and disappointment that things didn’t — couldn’t? — live up to all the hype.

So I’ve worked hard to reclaim Advent, which isn’t easy to do in this culture that tries to make Christmas barge in before Advent has even started. But here is what my family does, and if any of these ideas resonate with you, perhaps you can try them and see if you too can reclaim a bit of the quietness and peace of the Advent season.

I shop for Christmas all year long.

This is super important because gift getting takes a lot of time! Also, buying for everyone on the Christmas list in one or two months is financially stressful. If you haven’t done that this year, I know it’s too late, but you can definitely try this one starting in January. One year it dawned on me that I buy for the same people every year. Also, those same people have birthdays every year. So I made myself a schedule. In the schedule I listed all birthday and Christmas gifts I need to buy during the year, and I divvied it up throughout the 12 months. I have a monthly gift budget, and every month, I need to buy about four gifts.  At the beginning of every month, I refer to my list to see what gifts I need to buy this month and then I get them some time during the month. It is sooo much more budget friendly and less stressful than saving all the shopping for the last month or two of the year. I store them all in an unmarked tote in my basement (amongst other storage totes) and my kids are none the wiser about what is in this one particular tote. Come December, save a few small items, nearly all my Christmas shopping is done.

We put up Christmas decorations on December 17th at the earliest.

Christmas treeI sort of feel like if I put the tree up before Thanksgiving, in my house with four kids, one of whom is a toddler, all the beautiful decor would be quite tired looking by the time Christmas actually rolled around. Or even if I managed to keep it looking nice, I might just be tired of looking at it by then. To try to live this season as a time of waiting, however, we wait until Christmas is right around the corner to put up the decorations, and my kids know that when the tree and lights go up, it’s time to get excited because Christmas will soon be here!

We put out an Advent wreath.

Advent Wreath

Advent is a season of waiting for the Light to come, and trying to prepare our hearts for that Light. So for the evening meal, we eat by the light of the Advent wreath. I got this idea from Mary Haseltine when we tried it last year and we loved it! The first week of Advent, we light one candle, and eat our supper in near darkness. Each week, however, we light one more candle on the Advent wreath, and as we get closer to Christmas, we can see the light grow brighter and brighter. There is something about the meal enjoyed in the darkness with the candle light that makes it seem more special. It marks Advent as set apart from all other seasons.

We put up the Jesse Tree.

Our Jesse tree is a small tree, about the height of a four or five year old, and each evening before bed, we read about one part of salvation history — about how God prepared the world for the coming of His Son through the people and events that happened before Jesus’ birth. This year, I bought Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp, and downloaded the free ornaments that come with it. So we’ll be reading her beautiful reflections each day and hanging one ornament.

I try to wait to celebrate Christmas until the Christmas season as much as possible.

When it comes to the celebratory events, I try to wait. We do drive around and look at Christmas lights before Christmas, mostly because I’m afraid if we wait until after Christmas, many of them won’t be lit anymore. If we are invited to a Christmas party or recital, I won’t decline. But, when possible, I save the celebrating. Last year, a local museum had guided tours through their large mansion with live performers dancing scenes from the Nutcracker with the tickets being available even after Christmas, so I bought my tickets for then, rather than going earlier. I usually make out Christmas cards during the Christmas season as well. Maybe everyone thinks I’m late, but I think I’m right on time! Things like making Gingerbread houses or other such Christmas crafts, I do with my children during the Christmas season, rather than try to fit it in before.

We celebrate the whole Christmas season.

Family at Christmas

Christmas day is just the first day of Christmas, and we aim to celebrate all 12 days. We don’t do any formal school lessons during the Christmas season; we simply relax and focus on celebrating. We watch Christmas movies; make Christmas crafts, enjoy Christmas stories, enjoy some Christmas treats, and the like. For the first time last year, rather than have the children open a mound of presents all on Christmas day, they opened one gift each day of Christmas. Last year, once all the gifts were wrapped and had arrived, I counted up the gifts from my husband and me, the gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the small gifts the children had made for each other, and each child had about 12 gifts, which seemed rather perfect. So each morning, they opened one gift.

The year before, I had tried to write down each gift in order to have the children make thank you cards later, but in the chaos of ravenous Christmas-morning gift opening, it didn’t quite happen that way. Later I found some gifts that I hadn’t written down and I asked the children who gave it to them and they didn’t have a clue. So much for gratitude when they didn’t even know who gave it! That’s sort of the nature of things, however, when we have a pile of Christmas gifts to get through. We can try to instill gratitude and make the focus of Christmas less about materialism, but I feel like we can be fighting an uphill battle by trying to do that while observing Christmas as it currently exists in our culture. As Kim John Payne says in his book (my favorite parenting book, btw) Simplicity Parenting, nothing in a pile will be appreciated. So, by opening one gift each day, I felt that the children could really savor and appreciate each gift, while also preserving the anticipation of Christmas by knowing that the next day there would be another gift to open. This year, I asked the children if they wanted to open their gifts throughout the Christmas season again, or if they wanted to go back to opening them all on Christmas day. They all were adamant that they wanted to open them throughout the season, even the six year old, who sometimes has a little more trouble waiting for things.

I think by trying to focus our attention on waiting and preparing during Advent, and then fully celebrating during the Christmas season, I enjoy Christmas so much more. When “the holiday season” was a month-long sprint trying to do it all and get it all in, with the culmination of one epic Christmas day, I feel like I almost couldn’t avoid feeling a little let down and burned out by the end of it. And trying to fully enjoy Christmas celebrations when there was so much to do meant that the celebrations themselves were really just one more thing on my to do list. Now, however, with the attitude of waiting for the Light and preparing for Christmas during Advent, and then, when all the preparations have been made and the work has been done, to allow myself to fully relax and enjoy the Christmas celebration (spread out in small doable pieces), I can really enjoy and appreciate so much more the beauty of the Christmas season.

Thoughts on Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

I read a couple news articles last night before bed. The news coming out of Pennsylvania, and the long-term, widespread sexual abuse of children and its cover ups by the hierarchy was sobering.

I experienced anger and disgust. When it comes to the abuse of children, I feel this is only appropriate. I hate that I even have to say that or justify feeling anger. But I know from experience that when it comes to every crime under the sun, people urge justice and encourage the victims to seek justice. Except sexual assault, that is. When it comes to the destruction of homes and property it goes without saying that of course the first thing one ought to do is to call the police and press charges. But when it comes to the holy temples of God that is our bodies, people urge forgiveness instead. “You can’t change the past,” they say. “You just have to get over it and get on with life.” “There’s no use bringing it up and ruining the abuser’s whole life because he made a mistake.” They forget that “bringing it up” doesn’t ruin lives; choosing to abuse and rape other people does. I’m not saying I don’t believe in forgiveness, I do. I believe in it whole-heartedly. But forgiveness doesn’t erase the need for justice and it doesn’t mean enabling a person to abuse again. Also, forgiveness is probably the last stage of the healing process, not the first.

Jesus’ most well-known instance of indignation was with the money-changers in the temple. He overturned tables and even made a whip out of cords to drive them out. He defended the dignity and worth of the temple vehemently, and time and time again Scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19) “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1 Cor 3:16-17) So I always hear the Scripture story thinking that Jesus too feels great anger when thieves desecrate the holy ground of a person’s body and if we claim to be Christian, we ought to do the same. Our bodies are sacred. They are worth so much more than stone and they are worth passionately defending.

Of course I also feel sadness. As a survivor myself I know firsthand the devastation that sexual abuse causes. I know without a doubt that, despite the American culture saying that sex is no big deal and that sex can be casual, sex matters. What we do with our bodies and what others do to them matters. Our bodies — those holy temples — are sacred and our sexual parts are the most sacred. I’m positive they are closely linked to the very core of our being, of our personhood, and when a person chooses to sexually abuse another, the damage is catastrophic, life-long, and pervasive. I’m not saying a person can’t heal from sexual abuse; they can, but it takes a long time and they will never return to who they were before the abuse. Even healed, they will never stop living with its effects. I don’t think our culture as a whole understands how insidious and insipid abuse is, how it worms its way into every aspect of one’s life and changes everything. But it does, and until we as a culture and as a Church acknowledge that, we will forever give offenders a slap on the wrist and offer them more compassion than we do their victims.

Part of me also feels some sense of relief, because I see a lot of people getting angry, and I think, “Finally. Maybe we’ve finally acknowledged that sexual abuse is a big deal and its victims are worth getting angry about.” Indeed they are worth getting angry about. We should be very very angry at those who abuse children and those who enabled their abuse, and probably especially so clergy who represent and act in the person of Christ.

I used to be an Advocate for a Sexual Assault Resource Center. I was trained to answer the crisis hotline, to be a support person through medical examinations and evidence collection, during court proceedings, and police questioning or reporting. I’ve talked to tons of survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose families didn’t believe them. I’ve talked to some whose families did, but were so embarrassed by the shame that Uncle Joe’s or Grandpa Sam’s behaviors would bring to the family, they collectively chose to keep the abuse quiet.

I once remarked to a friend that people think honor killings don’t happen in the States, but they happen every time the body of a child is desecrated and the family chooses their own honor and good name over justice and healing for the victim.

I’ve seen mothers choose “not to ruin” the life of their friend’s son over seeking justice for their own daughter. Once I even saw an entire close-knit community choose compassion and support for the rapist over compassion and support for his victim who was also one of their own. In that case, it wasn’t even an issue of believing his word over hers, as he admitted to the deed, and in fact videotaped the assault. So even though everyone knew that, without any shadow of doubt, he abused the girl, the entire community expressed their support and “forgiveness” to him (even though they themselves weren’t the ones he assaulted). During the court hearing, his side of the court room was filled with his supporters. In contrast, the girl sat with her parents, and behind them a couple of advocates. Furthermore, outside the courtroom, she and her family were harassed so much that they ended up leaving town.

The tendency to side with the abuser over the victim is a thing, and it’s pretty prevalent. As a survivor, it’s something I have trouble understanding. Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand the destruction that sexual abuse causes. To us survivors though, it feels like we are being stripped of our humanity and dignity yet again, that our families and communities feel like we don’t really have any value and we aren’t worth defending.

So while I feel anger and sadness, I also form a question in my mind. Once we have demanded justice and the abusers and the enablers within the priesthood and the Catholic hierarchy have been appropriately dealt with, will we sit back in comfort and pretend that the problem has been dealt with? Or will we acknowledge the abuse that is ubiquitous in our society? Will we decide that other victims are worth defending too, and acknowledge that our own institutions and communities need repentance and reform as well?

As a Catholic, I don’t base my belief on fallible humans but on the doctrines of the Church that I believe with my whole mind and heart, but I will continue to be saddened, disappointed, and angered at the wolves in our midst. I will continue to pray for the many holy and faithful priests that have personally blessed me with their sacrificial witness to the love of Jesus Christ. I will be praying for healing for the Body of the Church who has been damaged — not by the report or by victims coming forward — but by the wrongdoing of abusers and enablers. I’ll be praying for the survivors. I’ll also be praying for the abusers because I believe that whenever we become aware of another person’s sin, that that is God’s way of asking for prayers for that person, and whenever a person sins against me I offer the very hurt they caused, all my anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal and sadness as a prayer for them. It is what Christ did for us on the cross, offering the very suffering that we ourselves caused to win our salvation, and so we must do the same.