Christina Mayeux reflects on how the symbols of Advent and Christmas have inspired and instructed her family.
It is Advent and the sights, sounds, and smells of the season are all around us. From the stately beauty of Nativity scenes to the fragrant scent of cinnamon and pine, signs and symbols of the Advent season permeate our homes, churches, and cities. These reminders evoke a sentiment of nostalgia and often joy, but do we pause to consider the deeper meaning of these symbols?
The Church, in her wisdom, through these signs and through the sacraments, engages our five senses to convey the truths of the Catholic Faith. Signs and symbols aid us in our understanding of the Faith, lift our minds and hearts to the eternal truths, and serve as reminders which assist us in our worship of God. For example, the use of candles by the Church remind us of Jesus as the Light of the World, born for us at Christmastime. The light and warmth of the candles, along with the smells of incense and the magnificence of religious art, just to name a few, all serve to engage our senses and aid us in giving glory and worship to God and help to educate us in understanding the divine mysteries of our Faith.
While we are in this world, in our natural, earthly bodies, God has gifted us with material reminders to teach us about his Kingdom and to bring to awareness the supernatural realities which we cannot now physically see, hear, or sense. The greatest and most extravagant example of this is the miracle of Transubstantiation – the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Even the Christmas tree, probably the most popular image of this Season, has its roots in Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in 2008, described the symbolism of the Christmas tree in these words: “With its loftiness, its green [color] and the lights in its branches, the Christmas tree is a symbol of life that points to the mystery of Christmas Eve.” Other symbols of Christmas include the Advent wreath, which symbolizes God’s eternal love with its circular shape. The green color of its branches denotes hope and life, and the candles demonstrate the dissipation of darkness with the coming of Christ.
The Nativity scene represents the story of the birth of Christ and is said to have originated with St. Francis of Assisi, who began the tradition of “living Nativities.” Later, the tradition evolved into erecting figures made of clay, wax, and other materials, as we do today.
Our children are now in their teenage and preteen years; however, since they were born, we have tried to incorporate many of these symbols and traditions into our Advent activities to help prepare our hearts for the Incarnation at Christmas. Along with many other Christian families throughout the world, we have prayed with the Advent wreath, the Jesse tree, the Nativity, and other meaningful Advent traditions each year.
This year, on the eve of the First Sunday in Advent, our children helped erect the Christmas tree and proceeded to decorate it and our home in preparation for Christmas. We put out the Nativity set and the empty Manger, along with our Advent wreath and all of the other trimmings which we use to decorate the house each year. I was so happy to see them eagerly participating in utilizing all the signs and symbols of the Advent and Christmas Seasons. My heart was joyful at realizing that all those years of incorporating the traditions of the Season had taken root and made a lasting impression on them and that they had grown to love and embrace these symbols and traditions.
By observing these traditions, our children have grown in faith and love of Jesus and appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation more each year as they grow and mature. My prayer now is that they continue to carry out these practices when they leave home and begin to pursue their own vocations, whether married, single, or religious.
Whether your children are still very young, or are growing older as ours are, practicing traditional activities such as the Advent wreath and Jesse tree are excellent ways to teach and experience the joy and anticipation of preparing for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. Using these symbols and activities in the home can lead to discussions about the origins and meanings of the traditions, and can help educate the family, along with inspiring and encouraging a more reflective and prayerful Advent and Christmas for both parents and children, no matter the age.