"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" (detail) by Johannes Vermeer

“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (detail) by Johannes Vermeer

I woke up one morning recently and panicked about my failure to “plan” Advent.  After a few hours of agonizing about an approach, I concocted a plan of attack.

“If we get an Advent wreath, make a calendar, prepare an empty manger with sacrifice straw and pull out all fifty of the Christmas books, I think we’ll be in good shape to help the kids prepare for Christmas,” I said to my husband, John, as we drove to church.

Did I check with him to see if he agreed with my ideas?  No, I probably should have.

Did I ask for his input about favorite Advent pasttimes?  I forgot about that one, too.

I simply outlined our various stopping points after Mass and John humored me, without enthusiasm.

(This, by the way, was my first tip-off I needed to go back to the drawing board.)

When we arrived to Mass, I hustled the three older children into the building, my to-do list bombarding my thoughts. I was distracted and agitated and it dawned on me as I settled into the pew: maybe the thought of preparing my family for Advent shouldn’t create such interior havoc?

Maybe there is a more peaceful, simpler way to help us all prepare for Jesus’s birth?

I had a novel idea sitting there in the darkened church to ask Jesus what I should do to help my family cultivate a love for Him during this special liturgical time.

So I asked and when the priest stood to give his homily, I got my answer loud and clear:  Confession.

The priest urged everyone to go.  Early and as soon as possible.

“This, he said, “is the best way to prepare for the birth of Christ.”

Eureka!  It was a light bulb kind of moment.

The priest’s prompt reminded me about the importance of making an active effort to stay on top of my spiritual life, instead of instead of micromanaging my children’s. When I do what I’m supposed to do to deepen my friendship with Christ—regular prayer, reception of the Sacraments, yearly spiritual retreats, etc.—my peace will become their peace and my joy will become their joy. Before you know it, everyone will be ready and glad to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and eat cake!

If our culture measures success by things accomplished, there is a temptation to measure our successes as Catholic parents based on what we do as a family.  This is especially true during special liturgical seasons like Advent or Lent.

  • Daily mass with all six kids three times a week?  Check
  • Handmade Jessie ornaments for the Jesse tree?  Check
  • Wrapped gifts in monogrammed stockings for Saint Nick’s feast day? Check.
  • Memorization and recitation of the O Antiphons?  Check
  • Homemade Christmas cookies to deliver to the poor?  Check
  • Homemade religious ornaments for the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousin Bobby, four times removed?  Check
  • Entire library of Christmas books read and reviewed by December 24?  Check
  • Spanish Celebration for Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadeloupe?  Check

Don’t misunderstand; it’s important I “drill into my children” a love for God. This is one aspect of my vocation I take very seriously and pray I never overlook (Deuteronomy 4: 6-7).  However, accomplishing activities cannot be my measuring stick for growing the faith in my loved ones, especially if my soul is frantic and frazzled while doing it.

With the influx of practical advice and articles on “Living Advent Well” to be read on the Internet, I think it’s easy for parents who desire to grow the Catholic faith in their families to get overwhelmed! There are so many good ideas we can try to tackle too much. Some of these extra things, I believe, can even be outside of God’s will for us! (While one family may be called to serve at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve, another may be called to welcome their alcoholic family member at their dinner table. We can’t all be called to the same thing.) What starts as a good intention—nurturing Love for God in our children—morphs into a project we attack with vengeance—“We must celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas with authentic gold coins, children! We must have handmade everything, children! All for the love of God!”

We become a bunch of Martha’s, instead of cultivating hearts like Mary’s.

Just because I’m able to implement ten out of twelve Advent activities I find on some website, does not mean my kids are learning and loving Catholicism, especially if I’m yelling at them as we go. (This, I’m sure, has the opposite affect.) Nor does it mean I am growing, especially if I feel burdened during an already crazy time of year.  When the bluster of things to do, even religious ones, detract from the purpose of the season—which is to love Christ more, to rest in His peace—I’ve missed the point.

The best way to prepare my family for Christmas is to prepare my own heart first.

To that end, I plan on following Father’s advice: I’m headed this week for some face to face time with the good ole’ Padre.  I think I can handle the penance I receive in Confession much better than the three-ring circle I was planning.  I think my kids can, too.

As for my plan for Advent?  We’ve simplified and everyone is happy.  We may even be somewhat prepared when December 25th rolls around.

Parents: What can you do to simply your focus during Advent?

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
Pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

—The first of the seven O Antiphons prayed during Vespers beginning December 17th.

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