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Right here in the manger.

The shepherd’s name was Fred. He was part of our family nativity scene, a hodgepodge of painted plaster figurines with broken-off and re-glued heads, plastic replacements with the prices still stamped on the bottom, and one glass angel wearing a silvery gown that always reminded me of something Diana Ross once wore on a T.V. special.

Our family nativity scene was pieced together over years that spanned six curious kids, various hungry family dogs, and a lot of moving vans. The plastic camel had a split right down his middle that gave my brother hours of entertainment chasing me around the house, daring me to touch its plastic guts that looked disturbingly like pumpkin insides. Then there was the stable itself. My dad had built it from scrap lumber, purposely giving it a rough, unfinished look, and leaving a tiny opening in the back so you could fit a Christmas light inside to shine on baby Jesus. I remember lying in front of that manger scene for hours–it always sat under the Christmas tree–carefully rearranging animals and shepherds. I believed this was exactly how it looked when Jesus was born, right down to the blue light shining on Fred and Diana.

That’s probably why I love all manger scenes. I love the old family heirlooms, and the kind you get at the dollar store. I like goofy ones with Santa Claus in them, or with bears dressed up as Mary and Joseph. I love the enormous ones on people’s front lawns, and the tiny ones inside snow globes. I love them because they tell the story. Even better, they invite us right into that stable with the Son of God. How cool is that?

My oldest sister has been entrusted with our old family nativity scene, but over the years I’ve collected a few new ones to cherish. There’s this gorgeous one,  that my mother-in-law made when my husband and I were first married, and that made me feel a part of the Clark family.

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Then there’s this wee little baby Jesus, who really is wee little. I bought it for my mom, who loved all things miniature. After she passed away, one of my sisters found it and gave it to me. (And yes, I know I should wait until December 25th to put baby Jesus in there–but I’m usually having a good cry as I set this up, so sue me.)

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Then there’s this one, from the mom of one of my catechism students. I love that her dad carved it from various types of wood–it reminds me a little of the stable my dad made.

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What about you? What nativity scenes do you like? The ones your kids make? The drive-through kind? The one on your favorite Christmas coffee mug? The one that was (sigh) banned from your city? Share them all here, where they will be loved and admired.

And don’t forget, I’m still looking for your Advent house decorations. Send those in, too, so we can all share.

God bless!

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Lights and Display Contest?! Lights and Display Contest?! Oh no…but Charlie Brown, no one’s gone commercial around here!

Share pictures of your Advent lights–indoor or outdoor–with AlwaysAdvent readers. And–new this year–I’ve got actual, real prizes–woo-hoo!– for the best outdoor Christmas or Advent display that reminds us what the season is really about! So share your ideas, and send those pictures!

Here’s a picture of last year’s winners, the Simons family in Laguna Hills, California:

Photo by Patrick Simons

Photo by Patrick Simons

Cool, huh? Want to see your photo here? Send it on over!

Prayer Fixer-Upper

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This beautiful photo is from Lel4nd’s photostream at Flickr.com

Have you ever known someone who bought a run-down old house, and then painstakingly remodeled it into a showpiece? Have you ever seen a quarterback take a hopelessly losing team and create a come-from-behind win? Do you have a friend who’s always taking in stray or sick animals and nursing them back to health?

If we can do these kinds of things with human hands, what do you suppose God can do with our most lackluster, inattentive, half-baked prayers? Even the ones we say over and over again that we think have lost their meaning for us? I imagine He uses them in His own way. He fashions them into something far more beautiful than the most soaring cathedral, the most powerful words of poetry, or the most impossible touchdown pass. He makes our most unremarkable and ordinary prayers beautiful and eternal, simply because he loves us, simply because He is God.

For the past few days I’ve been saying the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy for a friend’s husband who is dying. It’s put my small problems in perspective. And the words of this prayer help me realize that every time I say it, I’m praying, not just for me or one other person, but for “the whole world,” too. 

I am one person, and my faith hits snags every single day. I don’t love nearly as much as I could. I don’t pray with the fervor of the saints.  On this side of eternity, my prayer might be rushed, distracted and rote. But on the other side, in the mind of God, my little prayer takes on a greatness I can’t even imagine.  It’s the same for  yours. And for anyone who seeks Him.

We will never be the same.

By the way, here’s where you can earn more about The Chaplet of the Divine Mercy.

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Photo by Mario Sormann, Flickr.com

Another AlwaysAdvent guest post by my dear friend Stephanie Baker. Enjoy!

I have to admit that the thought of Christmas mostly fills me with dread.  This year Thanksgiving almost did me in.  My husband remarked that I always over do it and then get sick. Yes, he is correct – I spent most of the last 3 days trying to nurse a headache, stomach virus and a cold!  Why, God? 

When I was “preaching” to our Whole Community group on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I told them that they needed to slow down during Advent and make room for the birth of God’s son in their hearts.  That’s no small feat.  I think many people (mostly mothers, I’m guessing) busy themselves during the holidays trying to make the perfect Christmas dream come true for their families.  That translates into baking, decorating, shopping, wrapping, entertaining, etc, etc, etc!  We try to please everyone and end up where?  I usually end up sick in bed.  It is very hard for me to let things go but I have done it before.  When I realized I was the only one eating the cut-out Christmas cookies, I stopped making them.  No one missed those cookies.  Not having them did not ruin Christmas.  I imagine that principle holds true for many other “holiday traditions” that require tons of my time and energy. 

My parish does a wonderful job of modeling slowing down during Advent Sunday liturgies.  We usually prepare for Mass with a little singing practice and then the pastor gives us a question to spark conversation with our fellow pew mates.  It is a lively time and everyone enjoys it.  During Advent, however, we begin with quiet contemplation in the dark, no procession, no gathering hymn, presider seated in his chair.  We are given the gift of a few moments to breathe. 

It’s time to listen to the wise advice of Church tradition (and husbands everywhere) and make Advent a time of quiet preparation.  My husband’s favorite thing about the days before Christmas is sending out cards to family and friends.  I put him in charge of this task several years ago and he has done a great job.  Our daughter was married in July and our card this year is a family photo from her wedding day.  We plan on writing personal notes to loved ones this year.  I am usually too busy to do that.  Isn’t this simple gesture worth my time and energy more than running around like a crazy person?  The answer to that question is a big fat YES!  A gesture of love and concern for others is really what Christmas is all about. 

yhst-15803510100271_2187_22759082Stephanie Baker is a Catechetical Consultant for Twenty-Third Publications and the author of Kitchen Table Conversations. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and has also earned a Masters in Pastoral Ministry from Holy Names University in Oakland.  Stephanie has taught the Evangelization and Catechesis course at the Diocese of Oakland School for Pastoral Ministry and in the Holy Names University Pastoral Ministry Masters program.  She is married to her husband, David, and has three grown children – John, Emily, and Will; a daughter-in-law, Meghan Baker; and a son-in-law, Kevin Klinck.  She is proud grandma to Brooklyn Baker.  Stephanie’s home is in Walnut Creek, CA and she is a member of Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill.

I didn’t have time to find a beautiful image of decorated houses. Read my post and you’ll understand.

I’m driving through a neighborhood of sparkly, shimmery, storybook-style homes, all decked out in their Christmas finery. There’s not one over-inflated reindeer or Hawaiian shirted Santa in sight (unusual for Southern California), but every house is decorated for Christmas, 21st century style. It’s Currier and Ives meets Williams-Sonoma. Dickens’ London meets Target stores’ Orange County.

It should make me happy, but it fills me with dread.

It’s not even a week since Thanksgiving, and all around me, houses are decked out stunningly with an almost military precision. Upbeat, jazzy Christmas carols play on T.V. Skinny baristas are brewing peppermint lattes by the gallon. People are finishing up their shopping. Finishing it. And me? I’ve still got turkey in the fridge. I haven’t thought about Christmas cards. I have no idea where I stored the Advent wreath, but I fear that finding it might involve something dangerous, like cleaning out a closet.  Work is piling up, and deadlines are slithering closer like the Grinch in a Whoville house. In the past week my husband and I have dealt with a slab leak, assorted power outages, and a certain teenager’s truck that inexplicably became mired in a canyon. We’re fried like two chickens in a slow cooker.

“It happens,” people tell me. But no one seems to understand that it’s not supposed to happen to me. I’m the Advent Lady, after all.  The one who writes all the cute little Advent books and blogs reminding families that they really can make time to light the Advent candles after they’ve spent the day shopping and baking and cleaning and working and having their eleventh nervous breakdown of the year.

Right.

The worst of it is that with everything going on, I feel like I haven’t been present for my kids for the past month. And I don’t see us having time this year to do all the Christmas-y family things I’ve been envisioning–snuggling up on the couch watching old movies…baking cookies together…taking time to prayerfully light candles in church. I come home, feeling like a big fake Santa, and sit at the computer, ready for another evening’s work. As I move a stack of books, a scrap of paper falls on the keyboard.

I ignore it of course. I’m much too busy feeling sorry for myself. The hours tick by. Sometime past midnight my eye falls on that scrap of paper. I’ve got nothing left, so I reach for it.

Unfolding it, I read:

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, I beseech Thee,
O my God,
to hear my prayer and grant my desires,
through the merits of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

It’s the Christmas novena prayer of St. Andrew, meant to be said each day from the feast of St. Andrew on November 30 to Christmas. For the past few years, I’ve picked up this little scrap of paper each evening during Advent. There is something powerful in this prayer that offers a glimpse of that stable in Bethlehem. So, how did it show up here on my desk, on November 27, around midnight?

I honestly have no idea. What I do know is that I still have a few days before Advent even begins. I also know that it’s never too late to celebrate the birth of our Savior. My problems are nothing compared to what others have on their plates. Thank you, God. We’re going to be just fine.

A blessed and love-filled Advent to you!

Why Wait?

Here’s the first of our Guest Blogs for 2012, from my fellow Catholic Digest blogger, the wonderful Mary Breiner. Enjoy!
Connie

Photo by Tim Green, Flickr.com. http://www.flickr.com/photos/atoach/

Advent is almost here, it’s just around the corner. Already we hear about it in Mass, we read about it in our various booklets, we are thinking about it even as we prepare for Thanksgiving.  Advent, that time of waiting, of preparation.  A time when we not only commemorate the first coming of our Lord as an infant, but we look forward to the second coming as well.

The problem? We have become a society that does not like to wait. We are a society of instant gratification. Our children even have trouble sitting still long enough for stories and board games because they have become used to video games and DVDs that give them full entertainment for no effort on their part, except  perhaps use of their thumbs on the game controls. We no longer even call on our phones, instead sending “instant” messages and texts. This has caused yet another problem in that we are losing our ability to interact with one another on a one to one basis. We don’t write letters anymore, and our children no longer learn cursive writing in the schools. We don’t know how to wait, if we want something, we go get it. If we can’t afford what we want, we use credit to get it now.

I wonder if children still have that excitement that comes with waiting for Christmas? So often today, they get the toys and new gadgets they want when they come out, and don’t have to wait, so what is there to look forward to? Even our stores and shops get into the act, putting up Christmas decorations before Halloween is even over. The secular world doesn’t even acknowledge Advent, everything is about the big finale, Christmas.

I believe we are missing a wonderful opportunity in all of this. There is a sweetness that comes from that gentle desire for things to come. There is something very special about waiting for things we want. Especially the longing that comes with something so very special as the coming of our Lord. We look forward to visits from family at this time of year that we haven’t seen for a long time. We should look forward in the same way to the coming of Jesus. I think we need to teach this to our children, help them learn the delight that comes with finally attaining something we have longed for. We can do it a bit with Advent Calendars, but I question the use of the ones filled with a candy for each day of Advent. There is a wait, but a daily reward as well. I would much prefer a special daily prayer or Bible verse to be looked up and discussed as a family around the dinner table.  Use of a crèche is also a good habit. When my son was young, he looked forward to adding a different aspect of the manger each day, and slowly moving the Wise Men around the living room as they traveled to the crèche. He especially loved being able to place the small baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning. It all gives them a chance for sweet anticipation. Would that we could all feel that anticipation during Advent, looking ahead and waiting patiently for the coming of the Lord.

My wish for you  this Advent? A sweet anticipation, a feeling of longing, and finally, the exhilaration that comes with that final attainment of what we desire so much, the Lord in your hearts and homes. God Bless.

My name is Mary Breiner, and I belong to a small parish in eastern-central Kentucky. I became a Catholic on December 12, 1981 while in college. It was one of the most important decisions I ever made, as it has colored the direction of my life ever since. I am married, with a grown son. I am of Native-American decent, and have found a way to combine the beliefs of my ancestors and my Catholic faith in a very satisfying way that gives respect to both. I am disabled, having been in a wheelchair full time since 1998. I am a artist who paints in most mediums, as well as jewelry maker, rosary maker, greeting card designer, and many other crafts, including some Native American ones. I’ve been involved in many aspects of my parish, including 25 years involvement with the CCD program, the last several as CRE. I retired from that post several years ago, but remain somewhat involved to this day. I am a Lector as well as head of our Faith Formation Team. My faith is easily the biggest part of my life, and I always look forward to sharing it with others and hope it can affect their lives positively. As a result of this I was a blogger for Catholic Digest for several years in an attempt to share the faith. I hope always to be able to share my faith is some way with others.

(I wrote this for the parents at my parish, but I bet it’s true for yours, too)

Blessed are the parents who are full of sorrow because they’ve had to take their kids out of religious education classes for whatever reason. They will be comforted. (And they will be back.)

Blessed are the parents (and non-parents and grandparents) who help out at R.E. classes after a long day of work. They shall be given rest (and a back rub from Jesus himself).

Blessed is the mom (she knows who she is) who kept her son at R.E. class even though he was late for his baseball game and put at the bottom of the batting order. She (and her son, but possibly not that baseball coach) will be greatly rewarded.

Blessed are the parents who understand that most catechists are volunteers but ALL catechists are human beings. They will be given love when they need it most.

Blessed are the parents who, when picking up their children early from an R.E. class, get out of their cars and go into the church to get them, rather than making their children–even the older ones–cross a busy parking lot (and at our parish currently, a construction site), in the dark. They will be granted peace of mind.

Blessed are the parents who honestly and lovingly admit it when they didn’t read the parish bulletin or the e-mails or the letters from church. They will be granted time to get everything done someday. Really, they will.

Blessed are the parents who continue learning about their faith along with their children. They will see the face of God in their children, and their children’s children.

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