Advent Reflection for First Sunday of Advent, November 28-29, 2010
St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Anchorage, Alaska
by Tam Agosti-Gisler
In today’s reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, he pleaded, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Isaiah’s message to his fellow Judeans came at a time in history when their nation’s very existence was being threatened. He urged his people to live out their covenant with God not only to survive, but just as importantly, to make Judah an example that other nations could follow. It is easy to find parallels in modern times as our nation and many of the world’s countries are struggling with serious economic problems, with persistent political bickering, with continued security threats and with grave ethical and moral deficiencies. So how do we as Americans, as Alaskans, as residents of Anchorage and parishioners of St. Anthony live out our covenant with God in order to be the survivors, in order to be the examples of God’s light? Well, St. Paul’s message to the Romans gives us our answer. “The time is now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The references to night and day, dark and light should resonate easily with us Northlanders as we continue to lose daylight minutes. But we should remember this process will soon reverse itself and we'll be gaining minutes when the winter solstice occurs on December 21st at 1:38 pm Alaska Time. It’s no coincidence that the Church placed the celebration of the birth of our Lord at this time. If we are to put on the ‘armor of light’, or to put on the ‘light of Christ’, we need to ‘get moving’
When we look out the window in anticipation of the morning dawn, it should be a daily reminder that we need to prepare! This first Sunday of Advent is the time to decide on a course of action for the next four weeks so that when December 25th arrives and we celebrate the birth of the “light of our world”, we may also reflect on how we’ve let the Savior into our lives once again.
In my childhood, I was taught that Advent, the preparation for the birth of Christ could be celebrated in many meaningful ways. These customs have been a part of my family since the early 60s when my parents, Dona and Lino Agosti, were involved in the Christian Family Movement. In honor of my mother who passed away in March of this year, I want to share with you some traditions that have made Advent a more meaningful passage to Christmas for my family and me, to offer an example of some ways that allow us to let the Savior back in our lives.
First, there is the Advent Wreath, a table version of the one we light at mass each Sunday. It is found on our dining table along with the prayer guide. I admit that our family, scattered in many directions with work, school, sports and activities, does not have a sit down meal at this table every night. Thus the candles don’t get lit daily, but when they do, the wreath serves its purpose. As we progress from the two purple candles to the pink and then back to a purple candle, we are reminded of the impending arrival of light of the world and we have a refresher course in the beautiful psalms of old.
The second visual countdown to Christ’s birth is an Advent Calendar for the children. When I was a child, these were simple paper calendars with biblical verses behind each door or pictures of items related to the season like bells, angels, and shepherds. I recall my six siblings and I would vie for the privilege of opening the daily door. I used to love turning off the lights and holding a lit candle behind the calendar to illuminate the pictures. This was also, of course, an attempt to cheat and see what was behind the doublewide doors of December 25th! I knew it would be a picture of the Holy Family, but perhaps on a deeper level, I yearned for the light to shine through those doors like I yearned for the light of Christ in my heart.
With my own children, we began with paper calendars and progressed to those with chocolate hidden behind the doors, a little added incentive that made overlooking this daily Advent ritual a rare occurrence. For most of the past decade, we’ve used an Advent Box with little drawers to be opened each day through Christmas Eve. Over the years, I’ve varied the contents of those drawers ranging from mini tree ornaments, pieces to build a mini nativity scene to candy, coins, and slips of paper with positive affirmations. My goal is that each drawer represents my sweet love for my children not unlike Christ’s love for each of us. We let Christ back into our lives when we reaffirm our love for our each other and this is often much more effective when done in small or non–material ways.
December 6th is the feast day of the Bishop of Myra, a holy man who lived in the Third Century in a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of present day Turkey. He became known worldwide as St. Nicholas. My parents explained to us children, that regardless of the American tradition, it was important to celebrate this patron saint of children on his true feast day even though most people called him Santa Claus and expect his arrival on Christ’s birthday.
As a child, on the eve of the 6th, all nine family members placed shoes on the hearth of our home in anticipation of a visit from this saint. We learned that Nicholas did his gift giving secretly, under the cover of darkness, as he didn’t want anything in return except for those he helped to give thanks to God.
We woke around 6 am and ran to the fireplace to find tangerines, chocolate bars and nuts put in our shoes by St. Nicholas as he passed in the night! In order to reconcile in our young minds this visit of St. Nicholas with the secular American event on the 25th, we called this saint “Santa’s cousin” and we interpreted his feast day as a "progress report" for Christmas. One year, after a few disobedient incidents, several of my brothers found only onions and coal in their shoes on December 6th! They got the message loud and clear that Santa wouldn’t be coming to town on the 25th either if they didn’t shape up immediately!
St. Nicholas Day was a very special childhood memory and when I left home for college, I didn’t want to let go of this cherished Advent tradition and the acts of good will that accompanied it. I introduced my roommates to the St. Nicholas tradition by sneaking their shoes, filling them with treats and leaving them outside their dorm doors. I’ll never forget the story of one friend who was very upset that she couldn’t find her shoes to go to class until she opened her door and finally figured out that St. Nicholas had borrowed them! My mother also orchestrated some long-distance St. Nicholas visits in which bishop-surrogates were recruited to leave surprises on the doorsteps of my siblings, once even an unorthodox six-pack of beer!
When I moved back to Alaska and married, the St. Nicholas Day tradition was expanded to include my parents’ and siblings’ varied households. We all took on the role of the bishop and snuck around with the intention of leaving St. Nicholas treats on each other’s doorsteps on the eve of December 6th. The term “to nick someone” has a special meaning in our family, unlike the British use of the word. It is defined as successfully leaving a St. Nicholas surprise on the doorstep of another family member WITHOUT being caught.
Over the years, many funny incidents have occurred… like the time my brother was on his roof hanging holiday lights when he noticed a car turn into his cul-de-sac and turn off its headlights quickly. He lay still as a figure snuck up on his porch and placed a sack and then stuck his head over the edge and said “Hi Mom”, nearly causing her to have a heart attack.
There was the time when I was returning from my nicking activities and as I hit my garage door opener, I saw a person out of the corner of my eye hit the ground on my front steps. I parked in the garage and went into the house quickly to peak out the window in the room next to the front door. I didn’t expect to see the body of my brother plastered against the window nor did he expect to see me and we both screamed! We’ve marveled that no one has called the police on any of us over the years as we’ve snuck around neighborhoods placing these gifts of love on each other’s porches! St. Nicholas has surely accompanied us during these forays.
I confess that one year I set up a video camera in the basement window and filmed the legs of St. Nicholas arrivals at the front door. Foul play was called and technology was banned from the event. Mea culpa.
Of course, my own children were introduced to the tradition and the celebration of this feast day continues in my family each year. For us, and those folks, even non-Catholics we’ve brought into the fold of St. Nicholas when we’ve asked them to help, this day has become a favorite Advent tradition and an opportunity to spread Bishop Nicholas’ message of Christ’s charity and service to others.
The next Advent tradition my parents introduced occurs on December 13th. This is the feast day of Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia, as she is known in Italy and in the Scandinavian countries where she is widely feted. Since her name, like Luke, means light, her feast day also celebrates the impending arrival of the light of the world, both figuratively through Christ and literally through the winter solstice. We followed the Scandinavian tradition that the oldest girl wore a crown of four lit candles, similar to the advent wreath, on her head and was clad in a white gown to represent St. Lucy’s purity and a red sash to represent her martyrdom. In our family, the gown was usually a white bathrobe and the sash was a scarf or anything we could find that was red. The wreath was made from a metal coat hanger to which spruce boughs gathered from outside were taped. Attaching the candles and getting them to stand up straight was always a challenge but extremely important if Lucy didn’t want hot wax dripping on her scalp! St. Lucy, my sister, and her helpers, my other siblings and me, prepared a breakfast tray of sweet rolls and tangerines. Rather than processing through a town, our family tradition dictated that St. Lucy hold the tray, followed by her helpers carrying filled coffee cups or lit candles and parade into our parents’ bedroom to wake them. Next, all nine of us would crowd in their double bed for our St. Lucy’s breakfast, but only after carefully extinguishing the candles in hand and on head. Despite skirmishes over who got to sit where and who was crowding whom, this remains one of my favorite family bonding memories. It must have been my parents' favorite too since, after we children understood and took over the tradition, all they had to do was wake up to breakfast in bed!
My own family continues to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day although we use a manufactured St. Lucy’s crown with battery-operated candles and the chosen Saint Lucy makes bedroom to bedroom visits. Some years, we make St. Lucy visits to other family member households and other years, particularly those in which December 13th falls on a weekend, we invite our extended family over for a St. Lucy’s breakfast. We have funny photos of all family members, female AND male, young and old, wearing the St. Lucy’s day crown. The light of her candles reminds us how the renewal of our relationships is an opportunity to once again left Christ’s light into our lives.
On Christmas Eve, the conclusion of two other activities occurred. The first was the revelation of Kris Kringles or Secret Santas at our Christmas Eve dinner. Four weeks earlier, often at the Thanksgiving meal, names had been drawn with the understanding that acts of kindness or service were to be done secretly over the Advent season for the person whose name you pulled from the basket. Over the next few weeks, there were many happy moments. It was a wonderful surprise when I found my bed made in the morning, or my school lunch already packed and sitting ready on the counter. My mother was delighted when certain chores got done without nagging. My brothers were pleased when their turn came first, or they were allowed a coveted spot in front of the TV. On Christmas Eve, as we went around the table and described the acts we’d performed, a family joke developed. If one had been lax in performing acts of kindness, the standard response was always “I prayed for him or her.” My father was always insistent that he had indeed prayed for his recipient in his daily prayers and we knew he was sincere!
The other tradition revolved around the Nativity scene. At the beginning of Advent, my clever mother would make a chore jar and place it with a basket of actual pieces of straw next to the Nativity scene. Baby Jesus would not yet be in the manger, of course since we were awaiting his birth. Each slip of paper had either a household or holiday chore (hanging lights, making cookies, etc.) listed on it and a “straw value.” Once the chore was completed, those earned straws could be placed in the manger to make a soft place for Jesus to lie. Because my mother liked a little healthy competition between her children, and because she wanted that chore job emptied and her holiday stress level lowered, there was also a record sheet of how many straws each kid earned for Jesus! On Christmas Eve, the winner of the straw competition, who was often me I might brag, received a special treat and the honor of knowing that Jesus had a softer bed because of his or her good deeds. Then, every year we all processed with baby Jesus and candles to the Nativity Scene while singing Silent Night off-key and my father filming. We carefully placed Christ in his soft manger.
A ceremony for blessing and turning the lights on the Christmas tree also occurred. This signified the end of Advent and the beginning of Christmas. The meal, and of course, the arrival of Santa and noisy gift opening that ensued were much enjoyed, but after an Advent filled with acts of love and Christ reaffirming activities, there was no chance to misinterpret the true meaning of Christmas, as sadly often happens.
Just as Isaiah hoped his people’s behavior would be an example for others to follow, so I hope that some of these Advent traditions introduced by my parents might inspire you to try something new this year. With the diversity of Advent traditions undertaken in our parish including Simbang Gabi, Las Posadas, caroling, Angel Tree and praying of the O Antiphons, you have many opportunities to participate in those Advent activities or to create your own. “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” so that when we attend Christmas Mass, we have prepared to receive Christ in our hearts and to carry this light forward into the coming liturgical year. May God continue to bless us all and may my mother, the inspirational and hard-working servant of our Lord, rest in his eternal light.