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Advent and Christmas Catechist Mailbag
by Kate Ristow
We hear from our readers with Advent and Christmas questions during this season. Our intrepid editor, Kass Dotterweich, replies to each question individually, but this year she saved the most frequently asked questions for a mailbag article.
See the end of this article for an Advent Penance and Peace Prayer Service.

Santa isn’t the only one who gets mail at this time of the year! We hear from our readers with Advent and Christmas questions during this season. Our intrepid editor, Kass Dotterweich, replies to each question individually, but this year she saved the most frequently asked questions for a mailbag article.

So here are the questions you’ve been asking about Christmas and Advent—and the answers. Thanks for writing.

I’ve heard that Christmas is not the celebration of the Incarnation, but I cannot find a feast for the Incarnation on the liturgical year calendar. When do we celebrate the Incarnation?
The word incarnation means “to put on flesh.” Jesus became human or “took on flesh” on the day he was conceived in his mother’s womb. So we celebrate the Incarnation on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25). As a matter of fact, we celebrate this dogma, mystery, and truth over and over again throughout the liturgical year.

What is the origin of the word Christmas? What does it mean?
The name of this holy day comes from two Old English words that mean “Mass (or festival) of Christ.” The first known celebrations of Christmas took place in Rome in the middle of the fourth century.

Our DRE always schedules a penance service during Advent. Why? It’s so confusing to the kids; they see no difference between Advent and Lent.
It’s up to us to help the kids see the difference! The entire Advent Season echoes with the call to repent as we joyfully await the coming of our Savior.

Tell the story of John the Baptist and have the children learn his heartfelt plea: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Help them see that Advent is a time to make peace, to “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4), when the “calf and the young lion shall browse together” (Isaiah 11:6). How can we properly welcome Jesus into our hearts if they are burdened with grievances and sin? Advent and Lent are very different, but during this season of anticipation, we still need to prepare the way for the King of Peace.

Perhaps instead of individual Reconciliation, you might emphasize the call to peace in our hearts and the world through an Advent Penance and Peace Prayer Service (see the end of this article).

Is it true that Christ wasn’t born on December 25?
The Christians of the early Church were much more concerned with Jesus’ death, Resurrection, and Ascension, and his promise to return in glory. They did not give much thought to when Jesus was born. In fact, the first reference to a Christian celebration of Christ’s birth does not appear on Church calendars until around the middle of the fourth century.

It is believed that December 25 was chosen to counter a pagan festival honoring the return of the sun god (because the hours of daylight begin to increase after the winter solstice) on the same date. The Church changed the focus to a feast honoring Jesus, the Son of God.

Scripture references from both the Old Testament and the New Testament bolster this connection. Malachi prophecies that a “sun of justice with healing rays” will arise to save the people (3:20), and Jesus describes himself as the “light of the world” (John 8:12). In essence, the Church repurposed the reason for the celebration and turned it into a worldwide holy day honoring Jesus’ coming into the world.

Approximately three centuries later, Church leaders set the date of Jesus’ conception as March 25, exactly nine months before the day we celebrate his birth. On March 25, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The word annunciation means “announcement” or “proclamation.” At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would conceive and bear a son whom she was to call Jesus (“Yahweh saves”).

Is there a way to help my fifth graders make a connection between Advent and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe?
Absolutely! Mary’s apparition to Juan Diego shows God’s great concern for the lowly, the marginalized, and the poor people of our world. Our Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego in the sixteenth century, at a time when the native peoples of Mexico were oppressed and treated unjustly by the conquering Spaniards. Mary, dressed in royal native garb, appeared to Juan Diego and spoke to him in his own language, not the gentrified European Spanish of those who occupied Juan Diego’s land.

Could there be a more clear sign that Mary—Jesus’ greatest disciple—showed herself to Juan Diego as a sign that salvation through Jesus is for everyone, no matter our earthly status? It’s a wonderful message to focus on in the days leading up to Christmas, when so much attention is focused on what we’ll “get” and the things we covet. Our most important gift is Jesus. Use this wonderful story to help your students plan ways they can reach out to those who are poor among us.

I’m reluctant to tell stories about Mary’s parents or to identify names for the magi. None of these are recorded in the Gospels. I try very hard to be accurate with my students. What is the source of these accounts?
The names of Mary’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, come down to us through Tradition. We know nothing about them; really, we do not even have proof of their names. What we believe is that Mary was brought up to be a devout Jewish woman. It stands to reason that her parents instilled these values in her, making it possible for her to say “yes” to God. So we celebrate the feast day of Joachim and Anne on July 26—honoring Jesus’ maternal grandparents—and celebrating the gift of family in our lives.

The names of the magi—Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar—is likely the result of a comingling of tradition and legend. It is said that their names appeared in a sixth-century Greek manuscript, but that cannot be verified. More than likely, the names grew out of the Epiphany tradition of blessing homes with incense and holy water. Before the blessing, the letters C, M, and B were traced with chalk on the lintel above the front door of a home. As the house was blessed, the Latin words Christus mansionem benedicat were prayed. These words mean, “May Christ bless this house.” Note that each of the words of blessing begin with an initial (C, M, and B) corresponding to one of the magi’s names. No one knows which came first—the blessing of houses or the naming of the magi. But, clearly, through time, they have become linked. The magi represent the different races—a sign that Jesus came to save all people.

Don’t be afraid to share such universally accepted traditional stories with your students. In this text-driven age, you might want to emphasize that society was once based on an oral tradition. Our ancestors told the stories, parent to child, friend to friend, generation to generation. 

Please give me some ideas I can pass along to parents for observing Advent at home.
Urge parents to plan at least one activity to reach out to people who need help. That might involve getting information about a family in need (the number of people in the family, genders, ages, clothing sizes, ideas for gifts, etc.) and putting together a Christmas box with a holiday meal and a gift for each person.

My parish connects families in need with families that volunteer to help. For example, we always ask for a family with two or three little kids so that we can include toys in our box. This effort is successful only if the whole family is involved from the get-go, deciding what to give, shopping together, wrapping, and making a card.

Initially, I made the mistake of buying everything and having my husband and the kids help with the wrapping and packing, but that did not make an impression on our kids. The next few years, we divvied up the list and each one of our kids was responsible for purchasing a toy for a child. What a difference that made!

Talk to your DRE about giving parents resources for daily Advent family prayers. A committee of catechists might develop this and distribute it to every family in your religious education program the week before Thanksgiving. (Use e-mail as much as possible.) Keep the prayers short and practical and make sure they involve the children with a faith-sharing question, shared prayer, or prayer response. Urge families to light the Advent candle(s) at the beginning of the prayer. Aim for a five-minute daily limit. Keep in mind that Walt Disney’s rule of thumb was “Always leave them wanting more.”

Exactly when does the Christmas Season begin and end?
The Christmas Season begins with the Vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

The Baptism of the Lord is ordinarily celebrated on the Sunday after January 6, the traditional date of the Solemnity of the Epiphany. However, both of these are moveable feasts. In other words, a diocese may transfer Epiphany to the first Sunday after New Year’s Day (this year, January 8, 2012). In that case, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the Monday following the Sunday celebration of the Epiphany. This year, that will be January 9, 2012. The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, is always celebrated on January 1, exactly one week after Christmas. It is a holy day of obligation.

All of this can be confusing so it is a good idea to ask your DRE or pastor to post in your parish calendar the dates of feasts and solemnities of the Christmas Season. You can also check with the office for worship in your local diocese to clarify the dates for these important celebrations.

How can I discourage kids from giving me presents when not all plan to give me a present in the first place?
Handle this by communicating with parents. Send a letter or e-mail titled “Regarding Christmas Presents!” In the body of your short note, tell parents that as much as you enjoy the children’s holiday gifts, you prefer that they donate to a favorite charity any money they plan to spend on you. Tell them that you already receive an irreplaceable gift every week: seeing the children grow in faith before your very eyes. Send the note early in November and again in early December.

However, remember to be gracious if a child does give you a present. In the end, people are going to do what they want!

What is the reason for the priest wearing pink vestments on the Third Sunday of Advent?
Traditionally, this Sunday—the mid-point of Advent—is called Gaudete Sunday. The Latin word gaudete means “rejoice,” and it is taken from the Entrance Antiphon at Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice! The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4, 5).

Not only are the priest’s vestments rose-colored, but the same is true for the third candle on the Advent wreath. Rose is a joyful color and it reminds us of the joy and hope that Jesus brings into the world. It also reminds us that Christ will come again in glory at the end of time to announce that the reign of God has been fulfilled.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

Advent Penance and Peace Prayer Service

* Before the prayer service, have the children use the template [CLICK HERE] to trace a lamb on construction paper and cut it out.
* Choose a volunteer to read John 10:14-16 (place a bookmark in your Bible at the reading) and four readers for the intercessions.

Opening Song:
Sing or listen to a recording of “Like a Shepherd” (Bob Dufford, OCP).

Leader: Let us pray together the Sign of the Cross.
All: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Reading: John 10:14-16 (Jesus, the Good Shepherd)

Reflection: Focus on the following points:
* Jesus is our loving shepherd. He calls us to follow him.
* During Advent, Jesus asks us to think about how we have strayed away from living as his followers.
* Jesus asks us to turn away from the things that keep us from being part of his flock of disciples.
* During Advent, we remember that when Jesus was born the angels first announced his birth to shepherds tending their sheep in the fields near Bethlehem. They sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people on earth.”

Peace Promise Activity
: Invite the children to think about how they can bring Jesus’ peace to their families, friends, and the world. After a few moments of silence, direct the children to write a “Peace Promise” on their paper lambs. Afterwards, have them bring their Peace Promises to the sanctuary and place them in a basket. When all have returned to their places, ask the children to respond (R.) “Bring us your peace, Lord Jesus” to the following intercessions:

Reader: For countries at war, we pray…R.
Reader: For people who are treated unfairly, we pray…R.
Reader: For people who are afraid, we pray…R.
Reader: For all of God’s children, we pray…R.

Sign of Peace: Invite the children to exchange a sign of peace with one another as a reminder to live their Advent Peace Promise.

Closing Prayer (all):
Our Father who art in heaven…

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