5 Tips for Living Advent

Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, just as Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. It starts each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and ends on the evening of Christmas Eve. Over time, the emphasis has shifted from one of greater penitence and purification to one of joyful expectation, but either way the basic idea is the same: Advent is time we should be using to prepare our hearts to re-live the birth of the Lord and welcome him into our hearts. We should keep in mind that Christmas (like other liturgical celebrations) is more than just the celebration of the memory of things past. When we participate in the Church’s liturgy, the action of the Holy Spirit makes us present to the events that we celebrate:

Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present. The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1104 – emphasis added)

Therefore, it is worth preparing ourselves well to participate and benefit fully from the celebration of Christmas. To that end, I offer the following 5 tips:

1. Learn a new Advent hymn.

Most Catholics already know “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, but if my personal experience reflects the general reality, few congregations really learn any other Advent songs; we do our best to sing along with the cantor and/or choir at Sunday Mass, but since there are only four Sundays to Advent each year, we rarely really learn new songs specific to the season. And yet, good liturgical music for Advent can help us a lot.  These songs speak of the Lamb who frees us from sin and darkness, who brings us light and hope. During Advent we also think of his second coming at the end of time, when he will take those who love him to heaven for all eternity.  The words and music of these songs work together to convey a message of faith, hope, love and anticipation for the coming of the Savior. It’s worth adding a new one to our repertoire to reflect on and hum or whistle while we are in the car or in the shower.

2. Make an Advent resolution.

I’m not suggesting you give up chocolate or Christmas cookies like you would during Lent. However, it is a time of preparation. We can think of our soul as the manger that is preparing to receive Christ Christmas night. Surely, Joseph did what he could – as little as it may have been – to clean the stable and make it comfortable for Mary and the baby Jesus. We should do the same with our soul: try to clean it of sin, and make it a welcoming place by loving God in our neighbor. For example, we might make a resolution to be more generous with those around us who are in need, to reach out to someone who would otherwise celebrate the holidays alone, or – perhaps more difficult – not to judge all the friends, family members and co-workers that we will see at Christmas parties throughout the month, and with whom we may have political, ideological or personal differences.  Another good resolution (complementary to the kind I just mentioned) would be to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once at the beginning of Advent and once at the end. Of course, each of us has to see what we need to do to be better prepared, and that depends on our personal situation.

3. At least once during Advent, pray a segment of the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours (aka the breviary), especially during Advent, presents us with psalms and texts that speak of the promise of the Messiah. Christian liturgy has its roots in Jewish liturgy, and the Old Testament texts are drawn from Jewish sources; it’s probable that Mary and Joseph were reflecting on some of these same texts as they awaited the birth of their Son, whose mission is foretold in beautiful, often mysterious and symbolic language. By praying with these texts we join ourselves to them awaiting the coming of the Lord.

It might seem intimidating if you pick up a print copy of the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time, but many churches offer directed community prayer of Morning Prayer or Vespers.  If that doesn’t fit your calendar, you can pray on your own using one of the available smartphone apps, or a website like the following:

It doesn’t have to take long, either; some of the shorter “hours” such as mid-day prayer last no more than 5 minutes or so if prayed privately.

4. Don’t use up all your Christmas spirit before Christmas.

For secular culture, Christmas ends no later than midnight on December 25. For Catholics, Christmas begins on December 25 and ends little by little over the next several weeks. First, there is the “Octave of Christmas” – the eight days from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, which are celebrated with special joy and liturgical solemnity. Then there are the remaining four days until January 6, the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany, which are still part of the famous “12 Days of Christmas.” But, it’s not over yet! The Christmas season extends all the way to the first Sunday after the Epiphany. In 2015, that’s January 11.

So, while we may enjoy all the “Christmas” parties and events that happen during Advent and lead up to the 25th, let’s not forget that Christmas isn’t over until more than two weeks later. It’s good to keep our sense of expectation alive, even though the celebrations have already begun. Especially for families with children, it can be a good idea to stretch out some of the festivities and activities at least until the Feast of the Epiphany so that Advent conserves its sense of preparation, and we keep a sense of the meaning of Christmas as not being strictly tied to the secular, commercial celebration.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 8.57.14 AMScreen Shot 2014-11-28 at 8.56.50 AM

5. Revive a family tradition, or start a new one

Traditions have a cultural and sentimental value, but they are also much more than that. They are means of teaching and keeping alive values and stories that help make up our identity. I still remember the Advent calendars that my mother made for my brother and me when I was small. Each morning she would add something to the calendar for the day – a note with instructions, a small gift, a Christmas-themed image… Those notes might tell us to read a specific Advent-related Scripture passage, or do a good deed, or tip us off to some treat that we had to search for in the form of a treasure hunt. Sometimes the small gift wasn’t for us; it was for us to give to someone else! It was a fun activity that also taught us about our faith and the importance of giving to others. Similarly, a friend told me that when he hears the word “Advent” he remembers his grandmother gathering the family in a candle-lit room to pray the Rosary together and sing hymns on the nights leading up to Christmas.

Many families have Advent traditions, but sometimes they fall into disuse. This is a great time to revive those traditions, if need be, or to create new ones, that will help everyone to grow in their faith and in their love for this special season, creating lasting memories that help our beliefs and values to penetrate our hearts and minds.

Advent wreath

Advent wreath

And especially for these purposes, “family” doesn’t have to be just blood relatives.  When we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his Body, and Christ died for all, regardless of race, tribe or nation. We are all related by his Blood, if not by our own. Our family can include anyone we love, of course, but Advent and Christmas are also great times to show our love by welcoming people who are lonely, sick, or poor, those who mourn, and those who are far from home (see Mt 25:34-6)

If you want some more ideas for Advent tips, activities and traditions, CatholicCulture.org has a special part of their website dedicated to this topic.

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A quick thought about Mariology

Recent scientific studies could shed light on one of the ways in which Mary was unique.

fetus-20-weeks-1When a child grows in his or her mother’s womb, the mother and child have a special symbiotic relationship. As this article (among many others) shows, some stem cells from the fetus transfer to the mother’s body, and often stay there for years (and possibly vice versa).  As this same article reveals, it seems that these stem cells might not be just hanging around; they may take an active role in healing certain kinds of injuries (and, in some cases, causing certain problems).

SONY DSCThink about that for a moment.  If this science is correct, then Mary was probably carrying around living cells from Jesus’ body inside her own.  Catholics believe that Jesus’ body is inextricably joined to his divinity (just think of the Eucharist). So, if all of this is true, then Mary’s body was, in a certain real and physical sense, permeated by God’s presence, in a way far more intimate even than when people receive Communion. Think of the effects the Church attributes to receiving Communion, and intensify that immeasurably.

Suddenly the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life makes more sense than ever. Not to mention her remaining free from sin.

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Movie review: Interstellar

Movie review: Interstellar.

I have started a new blog (“Legal Alien”), where I will post things related to my life and experiences in Monterrey as an expat. Perpetual Learner will be more for serious posts about theology, philosophy, personal reflections, etc. (like my recent post on life lessons).

Click on over and read my review of Interstellar!

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Life lessons I need to keep remembering…

The past few years have helped me to learn me a lot of lessons, but some of them are frustratingly hard to keep in mind and to follow. Here are a few of them. They may sound trite, but if they are oft-repeated, it is because they are true.

  1. The past cannot be changed, and to live in it or lament it is pointless. The best (and most) you can do is be grateful for the good you have received, ask forgiveness for your offenses, and learn from both good experiences and mistakes and bad decisions (yours and those of others).
  2. You must do your best to understand and recognize the present for what it is, not for what you’d like it to be. That includes knowing and accepting the truth about who you are right now and what your relationships are with the people around you, with your work, and with God.
  3. It is your own responsibility to act in the present to help shape the future.  You can’t wait for others to decide or act for you.
  4. You should act in a way that is consistent with reality and with your principles. That is not always easy – it has consequences that are not always what you want – but the longer you let fear or anxiety paralyze or blind you, the worse things will get, for you and for others whose lives you touch.
  5. Making the right decisions requires making the effort to inform yourself and use your best judgment, as well as relying on the advice, counsel, guidance, knowledge and wisdom of others.
  6. If you need help, ask for it. But the more important the help you need, the more careful you should be about whom you ask.
  7. Looks can be deceiving.
  8. You are not in control of what happens around you.  No human being is. The universe is an incredibly complex network of causes and effects, natural laws, and decisions made with varying degrees of freedom and rationality. Rely on God’s providence and guidance. He is the only one who really knows what is going on – and he does know.
  9. In this life, you will never fully understand God’s plan. Just when you think you’ve got it, he will probably throw you a curve ball. Trust that he can bring good out of any situation.
  10. The previous two rules mean that you need to pray a lot: prayers of thanksgiving and of petition, prayers for others and for yourself. And believe that those prayers will be heard and answered, although the answer may not be what you want nor come when you would like it to.
  11. God is the only person whose expectations you must live up to. And God’s expectations are often not the same as yours, or anyone else’s. You discover them as you go along; always be open to the unexpected.
  12. God wants you to develop the gifts he has given you the best you can, in your specific circumstances, and to use those gifts in a way that makes you and others happy (the two go hand in hand). You must be the best “you” that you can be.
  13. The previous two rules mean that your happiness will come from fulfilling God’s specific plans for you, not from living up to any other standard.  No two people are the same, nor should they be.  Other people can serve as an inspiration or model in certain ways, but you cannot measure your success in life by direct comparison of your achievements with those of someone else.  We all start life with unique talents, difficulties, and resources.  We pass through unique challenges, circumstances, influences (both positive and negative), etc.  The results will inevitably be different. Don’t ask whether or not you are better or worse than someone else in any given aspect of your life or personality; ask whether or not you are the best “you” you can be in your circumstances.

These are easy to write, but I never manage to apply them all at once…

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God is Good (and so is vacation)!

God has been consistently, amazingly good to me. God’s plans can be strange, unexpected, unfathomable, and/or painful at times, but God’s goodness is boundless. Sometimes I ask myself why God takes such good care of me and answers my prayers with such generosity; why God’s presence has been made manifest to me so often, since my childhood, in a way that many people don’t seem to experience.  All I can do is say “thank you!” and try to respond to that love and generosity in whatever way God seems to be asking of me at any given time.

Besides publicly acknowledging God’s overwhelming goodness, I am writing to let my blog subscribers know that – as you can see – I am still alive!  I haven’t published here recently for a number of reasons, due to major changes in my life and activities. I have become very busy with new things that don’t involve public speaking, so I no longer have the same steady source of publishable content that formerly made up the bulk of my posts. Nevertheless, I have a few new topics about which I am itching to write, so I hope to get back to blogging soon, if that’s what the Good Lord wants… In the meantime, here are a few of photos as “proof of life”…  Taken during my recent long weekend vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico! One of God’s many blessings.

 

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The Forgotten Sign, Because Humility Just Isn’t on Our Agenda

Matthew Green:

A good Lenten reminder!

Originally posted on Biltrix:

Am I my brother's keeper? Am I my brother’s keeper?

When I give tours at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, I like to stop by this paining and not say a word. Eventually, someone asks, “What’s this painting about?”

Most people do not see what’s going at first or even second glance. Surprisingly, some people never see it until you tell them the title of the painting, and even then, some still don’t see what is going on. 

View original 552 more words

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Praying for the Legion of Christ’s General Chapter

It isn’t a secret I have not been overly optimistic about the success of the Legion of Christ’s ongoing General Chapter.  I want things to go well, but over the past three years time and again I have read and heard things that have not been encouraging.

Yet, today I looked over the photos of all the Legionaries present at the General Chapter.  I know the vast majority of them; almost all have been my classmates, teachers, superiors, co-workers, etc., at one point or another.  Seeing their faces flooded me with memories of them – of their hard work, their dedication, their advice, and their humor; memories of time we spent together, moments both of fun and of difficulty. I remember their virtue in the face of hardship and suffering, and their sincere efforts to carry out the work assigned to them, even when in some cases perhaps they were not the right man for the job.

Certainly, we all made mistakes, as we were living to some extent in an illusion. We were following rules, traditions, and an internal culture carefully organized by a man we thought was holy, but who was really the polar opposite.  Nonetheless, the men in the Legion, at least most of them, are – as I have said before – well intentioned, talented, devout, hard-working men. The priests in the General Chapter are a sampling of that, and their photographs helped me to remember it.

What happens to the Legion now doesn’t affect me very much directly; I am definitively on my way out, and am starting a new (and very different) life.  But I care very much what happens, because I really do love those men, and so many other people who are connected with or affected by the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi in one way or another.

Please join me in praying that God’s will may be done.  May the Holy Spirit move the hearts and minds of all those involved – the Legionaries, the cardinals involved in the General Chapter, and the Holy Father Pope Francis – for the best possible outcome.  May the Holy Spirit also help all those affected by the results of the General Chapter to recognize God’s plan its short and long-term repercussions, whatever they may be. I cannot think of any outcome that would make everybody happy, but if everyone does their best to follow God’s will, I’m sure He will surprise us all with His wisdom and goodness.

Click on the pic to see the full page with the photos and profiles of the “Chapter Fathers”:

chapter fathers

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