My husband and I were recently blessed with a new grandchild, and we are so grateful! We now have three grandchildren and to spend time with them is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received.
As we begin the new liturgical year, the oldest grandchild is beginning to understand what this Advent season is about and what it means. He is so free of any expectations of the season. He doesn't expect Grandma to bake cookies, to decorate the house, or to buy lots of presents. His wonder at the season reminds me how much better the season is when we lower our expectations and concentrate on the gift of Christmas: Jesus. Cookies, presents and decorations are nice, but in the end, they really don't matter. Time preparing for the coming of Jesus is better spent in prayer.
My father, age 95, also seems to enjoy the season, free of expectations. Perhaps it is because he grew up in the Depression, but he is happy with a piece of candy and attending Mass with his children. He likes all the cookies his daughters bake, but it is not an expectation that he has cookies on Christmas! The expectation is that he will go to Mass and then have dinner with his family. He really doesn't need or want anything else.
I do not believe that it is necessary to be 3 or 95 to understand that we generate the busyness of Christmas, that we create expectations about what we need to do around Christmas. I love baking Christmas cookies, so I do that, with a prayer for those who will enjoy them with me. I don't like doing tons of decorating, so I don't do that any longer. I have learned that I will not be prepared for Christmas and the joy that Jesus brings if I spend my time on things that don't really matter. I have changed my expectations for Advent and have gained so much in doing so.
Our Catholic schools do the same. They create places and activities that allow children to understand the beauty of Advent and its meaning. Our schools try to balance expectations of Christmas programs, gift collections for those less fortunate and many other holiday traditions, with a big dose of teaching our students the importance of Advent. When speaking with principals, they describe how children seem very happy to go to Church, as they know of the quiet and peace they will find there. Our students understand that it is through prayer that they can focus on Jesus and prepare for his coming. They also know that those quiet moments in prayer provide them with an escape from a secular world that does not easily remember why we celebrate Christmas.
Helping children to understand how to prepare for the coming of Jesus -- helping them to understand the meaning of Christmas -- is fundamental to our mission as Catholic schools. We cannot help our children to develop into saints and scholars if we do not spend time in prayer and thoughtful reflection. We cannot assist them in building a foundation of faith, a faith that will sustain them and will be with them throughout their lives, if we do not teach them to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Therefore, we take these days before Christmas seriously and spend each day helping our students to understand Advent and Christmas.
Our grandchildren are a great gift, a gift for which we are very, very grateful. The gift of Jesus, however, is one that we cannot describe in words. Teaching our grandchildren and all children about the gift that is offered to us through our faith in Jesus is a joy and a big responsibility. Our schools work diligently to bring our students to multiple encounters with Christ each day and we pray that we will be faithful servants who pass on the gift of faith to our children.
Kathy Mears is Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Boston.