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Advent: Preparing for Christ, growing in faith

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By Rick Hinshaw | Photos by Gregory A. Shemitz

For the Smith family of Miller Place and the Bellucci family of Hampton Bays, building the “domestic church in the home” is more than just an expression; it is an everyday reality.

While they try to be as active as they can in parish life — the Smiths at Infant Jesus in Port Jefferson, the Belluccis at St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays — with five children in each family, in both cases ranging in age from college to 2-years-old, they find that “family is the center,” as Mary Smith put it, of their faith life and their efforts to transmit the faith to their children.
And they find that Advent offers a wealth of teaching and learning opportunities — not only for their children, but for themselves as well.
“It’s an education for me,” said Tim Smith, explaining that he converted just before he and Mary were married; and although he studied the Catholic religion in order to do so, it is a continuing process of growth in the faith — one that is enhanced by the family’s Advent and Christmas traditions.
“I sometimes learn from the children,” he said. “And the traditions are great, I’m very tradition-oriented.”
Where Tim Smith is a convert, Tracey Bellucci described herself as a “revert” who, although raised nominally Catholic, did not begin to really live her faith until she met her husband, Richard.
“It was actually at Christmas,” shortly after they met, “that he wanted me to come with him” to church, she recalls. So it was natural that Christmas, and the season of preparation for Christ’s birth — “a soul-preparing,” she called Advent — would become special to the new-found Catholic faith life into which she immersed herself after marriage. And she, too, finds it a wonderful time for growth and learning in the faith, for herself as well as the children.
Some of the Advent traditions in both these homes — like the Advent wreath and Advent calendars — are familiar to most Catholic families. From early ages, their parents say, the excitement of opening each day’s little box in the Advent calendar, and discovering that day’s little devotion, gets the children involved, and happy with anticipation.
“We have a different calendar for each child, all of them age-appropriate,” Tracey explained. She also has a large calendar that she hangs in the dining room window every year, allowing sunlight to shine through and light up the colorful religious illustrations.
“The kids have the best memories,” from early ages, “of the Advent wreath,” Tracey recounted. “We use a safety lighter, rather than matches,” so each of the children can take a turn lighting the candle, which helps to also make them feel involved in the prayers and reflections to follow.
The Smiths have had to make an adjustment during the first week of Advent, Mary explained, because the children are all involved every year in a local production of the Nutcracker, and rehearsals run into the dinner hour. “So instead we have a special breakfast” for the lighting and prayers of the Advent wreath. It’s all part of the need to be “flexible,” she said, something she has had to learn over the years.
“I used to try to do everything, every year, and you get so consumed with it” that — not unlike the consumer shopping frenzy that for so many detracts from the spiritual preparation for Christmas — it loses its spiritual meaning.
“That’s why we need Advent,” she said. It’s a time to “take a step back, realize what Advent is — preparing for Jesus.” So now, she said, she doesn’t stress if they don’t get to every tradition every year.
Tracey, too, said that while her family does keep certain traditions every year — like the Advent wreath and Advent calendars — she will rotate some of the others from year to year, so as not to overwhelm the season’s spirit of prayerful preparation.

St. Nicholas
Both families make sure to observe significant feast days during the Advent season, like the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.
“We have a book for each feast day, the Immaculate Conception, the feast of St. Nicholas,” said Mary, and the family will read through them on that particular feast day. The Belluccis honor St. Lucy, known as the “saint of light,” patroness of blind people, by putting up their outside Christmas lights on her feast day, Dec. 13.
Both families observe the Dec. 6 feast of St. Nicholas in a special way. It is particularly meaningful to Tracey, who said she “only found out after I was married,” after reading an article in the National Catholic Register, “that Santa Claus was actually St. Nicholas,” a real Catholic saint — a bishop who, according to tradition, would leave gifts in the shoes of poor children at Christmas. She saw this as a wonderful way to teach the children the true meaning of Christmas, and so the family celebrates his feast day every year — reading through some of the many books she has collected on St. Nicholas, crafting St. Nicholas-themed decorations that she displays on the fireplace, using a St. Nicholas cookie cutter she crafted to bake treats and having the children put their shoes out the night before and finding small gifts in them.
“Then on Christmas day,” she said, “all our gifts are from each other.
“I’m not trying to denigrate Santa Claus,” she emphasized, but rather trying to put that tradition in the context of its true Christian heritage. Some people, she said, tell her that her kids “are being gypped. But they’re not,” she said. “They still get gifts on Christmas day like everyone else,” it’s just that “Christmas is for family” to exchange gifts. The children have their ‘visit from St. Nick’ several weeks earlier, in the tradition of the real St. Nicholas.
The Smith children also celebrate St. Nicholas’ feast day by leaving their shoes out at night, and the next morning they’ll find coins and little gifts in them. In addition, as the Smiths try to also make Advent a time of gathering with friends and family to share the preparation activities, they annually host a St. Nicholas Day crafts party with other families within their home-schooling circle. It’s a favorite event for Mary and Tim’s sons — 9-year-old Andrew, who likes “having all our friends here,” and 13-year-old Nicholas, for whom the day celebrates “my patron saint.”
The families take the opportunity to handcraft many of their Christmas presents for others, along with various Christmas decorations and ornaments. It can get very creative, Mary noted, explaining how one year, working on a gingerbread house, they decided to make it into a church — and did so, complete with stained-glass windows, a wreath on the door, and even a church cemetery on the grounds. Sixteen-year-old Hannah Smith recalled another time when they used coconut macaroons to create beds of hay, on which to lay figures of the baby Jesus that they made out of gingerbread.
The craft making party recently provided a poignant illustration of Mary’s conviction that “we have to be flexible, and leave certain things in God’s hands.” Two years ago, she explained, things had gotten overwhelming, and she was “feeling frustrated” that they had not been able to do the St. Nicholas Day craft-making party. Then, in the middle of Advent, the terrible shooting of children occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The daughter of a childhood friend of Tim’s was killed. He and another childhood friend were going to the funeral, so Mary invited that friend’s children to come to her house for the day — and they all did the Christmas crafts that she thought they we weren’t going to get to that year. So, in the midst of that terrible tragedy, she said, they had their craft party, and the children were able to keep their minds focused on something positive and happy.

Old Testament roots
Craft-making is also a fun Advent activity in the Bellucci home, one that Tracey links to another favorite tradition, the Jesse Tree. With its focus on symbols representing the genealogy of Jesus and the people and events that helped prepare for His coming, she said, it helps the children connect Jesus to His Jewish ancestry, and the season of Advent to the “thousands of years of waiting for the Messiah.” She has amassed a growing collection of appropriate ornaments made by her children for the Jesse Tree over the years, beginning with oldest daughter Veronica, now a 20-year-old student at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina — an Adam and Eve figure made from pipe cleaners, a tent symbolizing Abraham, a figure of David complete with slingshot, a Noah’s Ark figure.
“I think it motivates them to know the Bible, not be intimidated by it,” she said, adding that for her, the fact that the Old Testament readings at Mass every week are directly connected to the Gospel for that week, was another recent revelation.
“The Church in its wisdom understands that the Old Testament is a direct foreshadowing of Christ,” she said, and that is something the Jesse Tree helps her communicate to her children. “Once you really start to understand Advent,” she said, “you can better understand the Mass.”
“It’s like a puzzle,” she said of her own growth in the faith and that of her children. “We keep getting another piece, and with every piece added, the picture keeps getting more and more beautiful.”
Another tradition in the Bellucci house is to place, in the center of the Advent wreath, a white candle, with a depiction of Adam and Eve on one side — “reminding us of why we have Advent,” she said, because with the fall of Adam and Eve God promised to send a messiah — and an illustration of Mary and the baby Jesus on the other side, the fulfillment of that promise.
Another way the Smiths try to spread their Advent preparation to family and friends is by bringing back the tradition of caroling. It’s something he and his family used to do when he was younger, Tim said, going to nursing homes and other residences for the elderly.
So he and Mary began gathering people — usually upwards of 50, family, neighbors, fellow Infant Jesus parishioners, even their parish priests — at their home for dinner, some rehearsing, and then a caroling tour through the neighborhood, two nights before Christmas.
“We go to any houses that have a wreath on their door,” Mary said. “Sometimes someone will close the door on us, but most people are welcoming. Caroling isn’t very common anymore, so people like it when we do it.” Andrew recalled how one woman came to her door, told them to wait a minute, and moments later she had brought her three young children to a window, having gotten them out of bed so they could hear the Christmas carolers.
In their homes during the weeks leading up to Christmas, both the Smiths and the Belluccis try to focus their seasonal music on religious pieces more suitable for Advent, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Tracy has a CD of Advent songs.
“I’m not faulting the stores” for rushing the Christmas season, she says. “They’re helping people get ready by selling products. But we feel that in the home is where we can teach that it’s a time of preparation” — and that the Christmas season actually begins with Christmas day, and extends through the feast of the Epiphany — another important event of the Christmas season in both these Catholic homes. It’s another festive occasion of gathering for the Smiths, who take part every year with other home-schooling families in a big Sunday evening dinner and Epiphany pageant.

Good works
Doing good to others, both families teach their children, is integral to their Catholic faith.
“So much of what we try to teach is by example,” Mary said. “We try to live our faith,” and that includes, “taking care of people, caring for others.” And so the families’ Advent devotions are also filled with good works.
The Smiths’ oldest daughter, 16-year-old Hannah, for example, crafted a calendar chain, with each day’s link containing a different good deed. The children all pick one out and carry out the assignment. Each year, Hannah said, “the kids get so excited seeing what theirs is going to be.”
They also pick out the name of a family member each year, “with the idea of that person being your Christ child,” Mary explained. Each family member commits themselves to doing something every day — an act of kindness, a small gift, a prayer — for their “Christ child.” The key, said Mary, is that it has to be done in secret; the recipient is not to know which of their family members is doing these kindnesses for them. It was going to take a little creativeness this year to include 19-year-old Alexander, who is away at St. Thomas More College in New Hampshire. But the family figured out that small gifts could be sent through his roommate, without Alexander knowing who they had come from.
Nicky mentioned the joy of selecting a local family in need — without knowing who they are — at church during Advent, then shopping for them and wrapping their gifts to be dropped off back at the parish.
“So many people are so consumed with material things,” said Hannah. “But it can make you much happier to make something for someone, or bring someone something they need.”
In the Bellucci family, the children each make a “Christmas box,” with Christmas wrapping. Throughout Advent, they place a bead in the box for every act of “love and charity” they do. These acts, too, are secret — “between them and God. I don’t keep track,” Tracey said. Then on Christmas morning, before they exchange all their family gifts, each of the children presents their Christmas box, and all the good deeds represented by the beads inside, to Jesus.
Ask the Bellucci children which Advent activities they like best, and they have a hard time choosing one or two.
“I like the Advent wreath, the prayers every night, reading books, lighting the candle,” said 12-year-old Bernadette.
“The Advent boxes, and also the calendar, decorating, the crafts,” added Patrick, 10.
Teresa, 16, a junior at McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in Riverhead, puts it all together.
“I enjoy the way our family prepares for Christmas,” she said. “I grew up in a house where Christmas was not about getting stuff. It’s about Jesus being born. If people would focus on Jesus coming, that would change the world.”


 

FAITH and NEW WORKS

By Bishop William Murphy

Thank you!
My brother priests all experience, as I do, how often people say Thank You! Ours is a vocation and a life that by its very nature is aimed at bringing Christ to people, whatever the circumstances of their own lives. Every now and then, someone will ask with a certain sense of surprise, “Why are you doing this for me?” Sometimes I respond by saying, “It’s my job.” And it is. But that does not explain it well. To be a priest is to have received such an extraordinary and unmerited gift that the only way we priests can live is by doing our best to give back to the Lord by giving our best to the people to whom He has sent us. We have been called to serve in imitation of the One who washed the feet of His disciples the night before He died. We are ordained to act in persona Christi, in His very person, by celebrating the same Eucharist He celebrated that same night. We are sent to you by our bishop, or we bishops by the Holy Father, to love and pastor you with whatever gifts we have, enriched and inspired by the gift of the Holy Spirit as priests of Jesus Christ.

As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, None of us takes this honor upon himself. Could any priest ever claim that he has earned the priesthood? Or that he deserves to be a priest? That is ridiculous on the face of it. Yet while we may do this or that because it is our job, we truly do it because we want to be faithful, faithful to Him who has given us this gift of a sacramental and personal relation to Him, faithful to the Church where alone can we be sure to find Christ and His salvation, faithful to you who are the beloved ones to whom Christ and His Church sends us, faithful in our care for the world so that the world may believe the One God has sent.
Do we always live up to Him or to what we should be doing for His people? NO! We are fallible human beings and we can let our emotions run away with us, our tiredness make us cranky, our short temper fly off the handle. But do we want with all our hearts to be as much like Christ as we can be for you? You bet we do. There is not a priest I know who on the day of his ordination had in his heart any other desire than to be totally and fully a good and holy priest, to give glory to God, to imitate His Son and to serve the Body of Christ without condition and without limit for the rest of our lives.
These thoughts come into my mind as I begin to prepare myself spiritually to observe the 50th anniversary of my ordination to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Recently, one of my classmates wrote to me from Dubuque, Iowa, and reminded me that we were side by side on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome that rainy morning of Wednesday, December 16, 1964. I don’t remember if we ever said a word to each other that morning, but I knew we were side by side. And now, 50 years later, we still are! And that too fills me with such a deep sense of gratitude.
Present in St. Peter’s that morning were my parents, two of my sisters, my best friend, my Godmother and some other family friends. What a joy it was to have them there and to spend the next 10 days together! My parents and one of those sisters have returned to the Lord. My best friend is not well and my older sister is fragile. Yet their love and their prayers have never left me.
Now since 2001, I have been here with you. I still have all, or almost all, of my limitations, my defects, my weaknesses. The Lord knows them, as does my spiritual director. I suspect most of you know them as well. No priest can deny that aspect of who we are. But as St. John Paul said, We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the gifts God has given us and the work of the Holy Spirit that has been accomplished by God through us.
To all of you, I want to say a sincere thank you. Thank you for accepting me into this Church we all love with all our being. Thank you for pardoning my failures and my sins. Thank you for letting me visit your parishes, confirm your children, celebrate wedding anniversaries and parish events as well as diocesan landmarks like our 50th anniversary, the pilgrimage to Rome and our first Diocesan Eucharistic Congress. Thank you for your letters, your emails, your greetings after Mass and your prayers. Above all, your prayers, because in prayer we all become one, one in God’s love, one in our Eucharistic Lord, one in the Holy Spirit who inspires us to belong more deeply to Christ, to His Church and to one another. Glory to Him who can do far more than you and I can dream or imagine, Glory to God in Christ Jesus and His Church now and forever. Amen!