Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Ember Days Offer a Sense of Focus Before Christmas



Keeping the Ember Days is an old tradition in the Catholic Church. The Ember Days are four sets of three days of fasting, abstinence from meat, and extra prayers, undertaken during different weeks of the year, known as Ember Weeks, scheduled as follows:
- Between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- During the week following the first Sunday after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is held on September 14.

The Ember Days were originally associated with agricultural festivals, and they appear to have developed as the Church sought to Christianize pre-Christian traditions when possible, so that as the people of Europe were converting to Christianity, they could still maintain some of their old customs, now filtered through the perspective of their new faith. As practiced by Christians, the Ember Days had three specific goals: 1) to give hanks to God for the gifts of nature, 2) to teach the faithful to use those gifts in moderation, and 3) to assist the needy. Traditionally, Ember Days have involved fasting and abstaining from meat on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week in question. Special Masses would also be said on these days. Additionally, the Church developed the custom of performing ordinations during Ember Weeks.

The Ember Days are no longer mandated in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Church. However, nothing prevents rank and file Catholics from observing the Ember Days as a private devotional practice. The Ember Days of Advent (which this year are December 19, 21, and 22) can be an especially good way of focusing on spiritual priorities just before the celebration of Christmas. Below are some suggestions for how you can observe the Ember Days of Advent:

Fast: Fasting has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. Fasting helps us to gain a deeper sense of self-control and helps us to reorder our priorities. Fasting is also an essential weapon in spiritual warfare. Regrettably, since the Second Vatican Council, the Western part of the Catholic Church as effectively abandoned fasting as a discipline, leaving only two fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when Catholics are obliged to consume no more than one meal, supplemented by two small meals that add up to no more than one full meal, with no snacking outside of these three meals. You might choose to observe the Ember Days by applying these fasting rules to the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week during Advent. Or you might choose to do more. For example, you might choose to have only bread and water on one of the days. Alternatively, you could have bread and water only on Wednesday and Friday, while applying the less stringent rules on Saturday. Or, if you are experienced at fasting, you might engage in a stricter discipline on all three days.

Abstinence from Meat: If the fasting rules you apply to Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week would allow you to eat a meal with meat in it, take on an additional sacrifice by giving up meat as well. Treat this day as a Friday during Lent.

Prayer: Say some extra prayers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week. For example, say an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Do some extra readings from the Scriptures. If possible, go to Mass on each of these days. Also, if possible, spend time in Adoration at least one of the three days. Go to Confession on the Saturday of Ember Week.

Thanksgiving: List at least five things you are grateful for on each of these three days.

Helping Those in Need: On each of the three days, do something to help those in need. Perhaps a member of your family needs some extra help. Perhaps one of your friends is struggling and could use some sort of assistance. Or help someone you don't know.

If you embrace the celebration of the Ember Days of Advent, and allow yourself to have this altered sense of focus, you can be sure that Christmas will be a much more spiritually fulfilling time, and you will receive an abundance of blessings.

Sources and further reading:

Fr. Alek Schrenk's Thread on the Ember Days

How observing the Ember Days can enhance your spiritual life

Wikipedia Entry on the Ember Days


Photo credit: Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Have Yourself a Very Blessed Advent: How to Reclaim the Catholic Character of the Advent Season

Our culture starts to celebrate Christmas at best at midnight after Thanksgiving, but more and more at midnight after Halloween. However, in the Catholic Church, we do not start the Christmas season until the evening of December 24. Instead, we have a four-week preparation time leading up to Christmas called Advent, which begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day, celebrated on November 30th. In the Catholic Church, the Christmas season then continues into January, until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In fact, in an older Catholic tradition, Christmas celebrations didn't end until Candlemas, which is February 2.

I'm not an Advent purist. I realize it's impossible not to engage in some early Christmas celebration, since our culture is awash with all things Christmas all the way through Advent. But in the midst of all that Christmas cheer, we can do much to reconnect with the original purpose of the Advent season and to reintroduce Advent customs developed in the Catholic Church throughout the centuries, throughout the world. Below are some suggestions for celebrating Advent in the Catholic way.

Reclaiming the Focus of Advent
The first step is to intentionally reconnect with the original focus of Advent, which is threefold:
- Preparing for the liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God.
- Becoming spiritually purified so that we can be more fully opened to the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
- Preparing ourselves and the world for the Second Coming of Christ.
When we enter into the Advent season with this focus, the many different Advent traditions fall into place naturally.

Advent Traditions
Please note: For this section, I relied heavily on the following article:
How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

Advent Wreath: One of the most beloved Advent traditions is the Advent wreath, made of evergreen boughs, with four candles – three purple and one pink. On the first Sunday of Advent, you light one purple candle. On the second Sunday, you light two. On the third Sunday, you light the first two purple ones and the pink one. Pink or rose color is used on the third Sunday of Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. We are rejoicing because we are halfway to Christmas. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, you light all four candles. The increasing light of the candles symbolizes that the coming of Christ, who is the light of the world, is closer and closer.

If you do not have a custom of praying with your family at home each day, Advent is a great time to start. Gather around the Advent wreath each night, light the appropriate number of Candles, and say some prayers. Once you start in Advent, it is easier to continue with the evening prayers the rest of the year.

The Jesse Tree: The name of the Jesse Tree references the biblical prophecy that the Messiah will come in the line of Jesse, the father of the great King David (Isaiah 11:1-4). This hands-on Advent custom uses a small tree or a specially designed display board to trace our biblical history leading up to Jesus. Each night of Advent you add an ornament representing a biblical figure or event preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. You can order a Jesse Tree kit with ornaments online, or you can make them yourself if you are good at crafts. If you set up your Christmas tree already at the beginning of Advent, you can also add the Jesse Tree ornaments to you Christmas tree, though it might be fun to have a separate Jesse Tree corner.

As you add each ornament, you can read a few verses from the Bible corresponding to the symbol on the ornament of the day. Some premade ornaments will come with the relevant Scripture verses inscribed on the back. You can also find online guides for which passage to use with which symbol, as well as books that include the readings with reflections. The links below provide some leads.

The Tradition of the Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree

Advent Calendar: You can find a variety of Advent calendars in different places – both Catholic and secular stores and online. Advent Calendars typically start on December 1 and go through Christmas Day. Each day, you open a door, which leads you to some sort of surprise. Some calendars provide a chocolate for each day. Others, like the Lego Advent calendar, might offer a toy. In fact, I see from the posts of my Hungarian friends that they have gone beyond just a simple calendar. At the beginning of Advent, they display 24 little gift bags for each of the children somewhere in the home, and the kids get to open them as the Advent season unfolds.

Some Advent calendars have an adult theme, such as one I saw recently, which held a different type of beer for every day of Advent. While I don't think that an alcohol Advent calendar is inherently wrong, we do need to be careful not to turn the custom of the Advent calendar into something sacrilegious.

By contrast, the more spiritually focused Advent calendars will reveal a new Scripture passage, a blessing, or some other meaningful saying as you open up the door each day. If you have kids, the chocolate or toy calendars can be a fun tradition that can help them look forward to the Advent season. However, whatever kind of calendar you end up using, I would suggest opening each door in the context of an Advent prayer for that day.

Sunday Dinners: During the season of Advent, make a point of having Sunday dinner with family or friends. If you invite friends, you can make it a potluck. Or you could all go out to eat, especially if eating out is more of a special occasion for the family or circle of friends. Intentionally connect the dinner with the celebration of the Sunday in Advent. Start the dinner with an Advent prayer or Scripture passage, such as the Gospel reading for that Sunday. At home, you could place the Advent wreath in the middle of the table, with the appropriate number of candles lit.

Set Up Nativity Set in Stages: You can start setting up your Nativity Set at the beginning of Advent, but don't put everything out at once. Do it in stages, as a way of symbolizing that we haven't yet arrived at Christmas, but are gradually drawing near. For example, set out the animals the first week. Then add Mary and Joseph the second week. Add the angels the third week. Add the shepherds the fourth week.

Wait until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. Some churches offer a Bambinelli blessing during Advent, when parishioners are encouraged to bring the baby Jesus figure from their Nativity Set to church for a blessing by the priest. If your parish doesn't celebrate this custom, perhaps you could ask your pastor to consider offering this blessing.

Finally, wait until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (sometimes celebrated on the nearest Sunday) to set out the three wise men. As mentioned above, traditionally Catholics would keep celebrating Christmas until February 2. Even if you put away all the other decorations by then, leave your Nativity Set out until February 2 to rekindle our connection with this older tradition.

Blessing the Christmas Tree: Christians use the Christmas tree as a symbol of the coming of Christ into the world. The many lights on the tree symbolize Christ, the light of the world, bringing light into our darkness. The evergreen tree symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and eternal life in Christ. The triangular shape of the tree is seen as referring to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The ornaments on the tree represent Christ's gift of grace to us, as well as our worship being offered to God.

As we prepare our Christmas tree, we should bear in mind the symbolism that Christians associate with this custom, and we should avoid ornaments that would take us in a different direction. Once our tree is set up, we should also bless the tree, thereby reminding ourselves of the sacred purpose for which we have set it up. Most priests probably do not have enough time to bless each Christmas tree in their parish, but Catholics are welcome to bless their own tree, using blessings provided by the Church. See for example the blessing recommended by the United States Conference of Bishops:

Blessing of a Christmas Tree

Leave a Candle in the Window: During the Advent season, leave a candle in a window that can be seen from the street. You could use a purple candle holder, and then switch to a red one for the Christmas season. Just make sure you burn your candle safely. Consider using an electronic tea light, which does not pose a fire hazard.

Advent Foods: One way to celebrate liturgical seasons is to partake of foods traditionally associated with each season. Advent foods have disappeared from mainstream Catholic consciousness in the United States, but we can certainly bring them back. Various blogs offer suggestions, complete with detail recipes. I will link to two here, but you can easily find more on the web.

Advent Foods for Feast Days and Everything Else

Recipes for December ~ Month Dedicated to the Divine Infancy

Listen to Advent Music: Throughout the month of December, our culture is awash with Christmas music. We cannot avoid hearing Christmas music during Advent, nor do I think that we need to try. However, we should also make a point of intentionally listening to specifically Advent music. The link below offers a list. Most of these songs are on YouTube, so you can select the ones you like and create a playlist.

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Celebrate the Feasts during Advent: The Catholic liturgical calendar offers a rich variety of saints to celebrate during the year. Advent is no exception. The two most prominent are St. Nicholas (Dec 6) and St. Lucy (Dec 13), both of which have specific traditions associated with them. Furthermore, two major Marian feast days also fall in the Advent season: The Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec 12). Advent is also enriched by various cultural traditions, such as the Filipino Simbang Gabi and the Mexican Las Posadas celebrations. Take part in these various festivities in your community, if they are offered. If not, you have a good chance of finding some of these customs in neighboring Catholic churches.

See also:
The major feasts of Advent

The Penitential Dimension of Advent
Historically, the season of Advent had more of a penitential character, much like Lent. We would do well to recapture some of the penitential aspect of the season. Penitential practices can help us to free ourselves from sinful habits and to refocus our lives on the love of God. Through penitential practices, we can also atone for our sins from the past. Below are some suggestions for penitential practices during during Advent:

- Abstain from meat one day during each week, for example, Friday.
- Fast one day each week during Advent on bread and water. If full one day does not seem possible, fast for portions of one or more days.
- Commit to having only three meals a day, with no snacking in between on certain days or during the whole of Advent.
- Give up a food or drink you especially love from the beginning of Advent until Christmas Eve.

Making Advent More Prayerful
Advent is a great time to get into the habit of more regular prayer. If we establish a custom of prayer over four weeks, we have a good chance of continuing beyond the season. Below are some suggestions for making Advent more prayerful:

- If you don’t already pray the Rosary, commit to praying one full Rosary every day during Advent. If that does not seem possible, then at first commit to saying at least one decade of the Rosary per day.
- Follow the Mass readings of each day of the Advent season. You can find various reflections on the daily readings, such as those of Bishop Barron.
- You might also follow another program of Scripture readings designed for Advent. You can find various sets, often with commentary.
- Read more Scripture in some other way, for example, by reading one chapter from the Gospels each day.
- Pray the Christmas Anticipation Prayer, also known as the Christmas Novena Prayer during the season of Advent, which can be found here.
- If you are married, pray a blessing over your spouse every day during Advent, preferably while he or she is present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angel of your spouse to help him or her be fully open to the love of God in her life.
- If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Advent, preferably while they are present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angels of your children to help them be fully open to the love of God in their lives.
- Commit to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet each day during Advent.

Engage in Good Works
As a part of making Advent more spiritual, make sure that your spiritual commitment shows in your actions too. For example:
- Give alms.
- Perform works of service for family, friends, or strangers.
- Think of ways that you can continue these works of service beyond the Christmas season, during the months when charitable organizations get less attention from the public.
- Help kids get excited about doing good works by doing one of the following:
1) For each good deed they do, they get to put a piece of candy on the Christmas tree as decoration. (Some individually wrapped chocolates for example are easy to attach with ornament hooks). On Christmas Eve, they can start taking off all the candy and eating it.
2) Prepare an empty wooden box as the manger into which the baby Jesus will be placed on Christmas Eve. Whenever the kids do a good deed, they get to put a piece of straw into the manger. If they do a lot of good works during Advent, the baby Jesus will have a very comfortable manger.

Spiritual Cleansing
As we get closer to God, our spiritual enemies will work extra hard to try to derail our progress. They especially want to draw us away from moments in which we can experience the grace of God in a powerful way. We can expect intensified spiritual attacks during Advent. Therefore, it is especially important to use the time of Advent to turn away from sin and to seek the healing power of Christ to cleanse us from negative spiritual influences. I suggest the following spiritual practices.
- Examination of Conscience: Reflect daily on ways in which you have fallen away from Christ, and pray for the grace of complete repentance.
- Confession: Go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.
- Say spiritual binding prayers to cast our evil spirits that are attacking you and your family. For example, say aloud daily: “I repent of (name sin), and I close all doors that I may have opened through this sin. In the Holy Name of Jesus, I bind, rebuke, and cast out all demons that are attacking me and my family. I invite in the Holy Spirit into my family, into our hearts, our homes, and our lives. I invoke the protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, and all the saints, especially the martyrs who shed their blood for the Lord.”

Drawing Closer to the Sacraments
The Seven Sacraments are at the heart of the Catholic life. Use the time of Advent to draw closer to each of the Sacraments either through your participation or through your prayers. I would recommend the following:

- Make a commitment to attending Mass more often than just on Sunday during Advent.
- On days when you cannot attend Mass, unite yourself spiritually with the Eucharist.
- Go to Adoration at least once a week during Advent.
- Remember that each Mass is like Christmas, because during each Mass, Christ comes to us in physical form in the Blessed Sacrament.

- As mentioned above, go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.

- During the Advent season, reflect on your baptism and Confirmation. Reflect on the following questions: “How would my life be different if I had not been baptized and Confirmed? What blessings have I received through my baptism and Confirmation? How can I share those blessings with others?”

- If you are married, focus on some form of marriage enrichment with your spouse during Advent. Assuming your spouse agrees, you could do the following:
1) Get an Advent calendar that has room for things to be placed inside. For every odd day on the calendar, place a small note inside in which you compliment your spouse somehow. For every even day, your spouse would then put inside the calendar a note complimenting you in some way. For each day until Christmas, you read the note that was placed inside. For Christmas Day, you would each place a note of compliment inside the calendar. This way, the whole Advent season can become a time of bonding.
2) Each night during Advent, both you and your spouse each place a new ornament on the Christmas tree, and as you do, you each say something positive about the other. If you have children, you can adapt these exercises to involve them too.

- Pray for a priest by name (or several priests) during the Advent season, as well as for vocations to the priesthood. Pray for all of our ordained ministers and the healing of the Church during these times of crisis.

- Pray for all those who are ill in mind or body, especially those who do not have access to the Anointing of the Sick for whatever reason. Pray in a special way for those who are struggling with loss or grief during a time when the world around them is so festive.

Share Your Own Ideas
I hope that the above list has given you things to think about and to do during the Advent season. If you have Advent ideas of your own, please share them with me, so that I can expand this list (giving you due credit of course). In closing, I am also including a list of links that you might find helpful.


Advent Resources:

How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

The History of Advent

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Catholic Apostolic Center Advent Resources

CatholicMom Advent Resources

Word on Fire Advent Reflections

The Best Advent Ever by Dynamic Catholic

Archdiocese of Seattle Advent Resources

Unites States Conference of Bishops Advent Resources

Advent Reflections from Formed

The Religion Teacher’s Advent Activities

National Catholic Education Association Advent Resources


Christmas Anticipation Prayer

The following prayer is recited 15 times per day from the Feast of St. Andrew on November 30 to Christmas:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment
In which the Son of God was born
Of the most pure Virgin Mary,
at midnight,
in Bethlehem,
in the piercing cold.
In that hour vouchsafe, O my God,
to hear my prayer and grant my desires,
[here mention your request]
through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ,
and of His blessed Mother. Amen.


Photo credit: Advent Wreath in St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017