It’s unclear who took a cue from whom, but holiday promoters and political campaigners seem to be in lockstep when it comes to starting things earlier and earlier. The 2024 presidential election cycle has, of course, begun already, and I’m pretty certain I saw pumpkin-shaped Reese’s cups for sale at the store around the Fourth of July.
It can be a challenge during these frenetic times, with pop-up windows advertising pre-pre-pre Black Friday sales swarming your screen like mosquitoes on a summer windshield, to remember that Advent is meant to be a time of stillness. In the Catholic faith, it’s actually a penitential season. I think of it as a mini-Lent, with Thanksgiving serving as a wintry Fat Tuesday. Advent is four weeks long, compared to Lent’s six-week period, and though prayer, fasting, and sacrifice are encouraged during Advent and have historically been a part of the season, fasting and abstinence are not required during the preparatory time pre-Christmas, as they are in the lead-up to Easter.
“God speaks to the soul in silence and in the recollection of the mind,” my priest friend, Father Marc, tells me. “The Church in her wisdom gave us Advent so we could really contemplate the incarnation of God and be at peace during this season of anxiety and busyness.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the shopping, decorating, events, and parties that consume December and make it feel not as if we’re preparing spiritually for the Lord’s coming, but rather celebrating with a month-long birthday party. Infusing more silence in our lives, especially during such a distractingly consumeristic and gluttonous few weeks, can do wonders for our souls (and stress levels).
Fr. Marc recommends setting aside some daily quiet time, either early in the morning or before bed, in a church or in a peaceful part of your home, in which to create an environment of silence and prayer.
“Turn off noisy technology,” he suggests. “Use a book with prayers and meditations to help you stay focused if your mind tends to wander. Saying short little aspiration prayers also helps.”
Fr. Marc also suggests giving something up, such as alcohol, during Advent.
“Abstaining from alcohol, which is traditionally reserved mainly for celebrations and social occasions, is a sign that you’re thinking of the coming feast of Christmas, rather than the whole month of December as a celebration.”
Bonus: Abstaining from alcohol at the company Christmas party is also a great conversation starter! And you may not be alone. Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics reported in 2010 that “many congregations are making renewed efforts to mark the season of Advent in ways that are grounded in the Christian tradition.”
Fasting, author Thomas Turner wrote in this very worthwhile essay, should not just be limited to food. Bishop Kallistos Ware observed, “The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” Turner explains that “this insight can extend to fasting from other good things that, when we improperly desire or carelessly use them, can distort our relationship to God.”
Consider fasting from social media, your phone, television, earbuds, eating in restaurants, online shopping, etc. “Fasting from possessions during Advent,” writes Turner, “allows us to step back from what most threatens to control us — the deluge of advertising, hype of the latest technological gadgetry, and incessant hustle and bustle of shopping — in order to reclaim the season as a time of spiritual attunement and discipleship.”
It can seem nearly impossible to forego what has become an expected state of celebrating this time of year, but quietly retreating from the pre-emptive festivities is not as boring or lonely or hard as I thought it would be. By making Advent a more solemn time, I’ve found that much of the pressure I feel around “the holidays” is imposed by … myself. If I miss a party or pass on the spiked punch, no one will really be aware of it but me (and God). And I certainly don’t miss the long lines at the stores, the crowded parking lots, and so forth.
Try setting aside a part of your day this Advent to sit in silence and ready your heart for Jesus’ coming. And rather than simply give something up, consider giving it away. If you sacrifice a couple of meals during your week, for instance, use the time you’d typically spend shopping for food and preparing dinner by volunteering at a food bank. If you give up online shopping, find a local charity that needs specific items, and scratch your shopping itch by shopping for someone else. If you decide to skip your TV time, spend it instead by walking in nature, appreciating and glorifying God’s creation.
A quiet Advent will make for a much more joyous Christmas. Now if we could only convince the politicos of the same concept.