Over the years, our traditions, big or small, nestle into the inner recesses of our children’s hearts.
Just one verse each day.
Each morning in December, our children wake up bright-eyed and eager. They tumble down the stairs to their Advent calendars to see what new delight awaits. It might be a chocolate, a butterfly stamp, or a new pen with colored ink to write a note to their grandmother. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, they put their shoes on the hearth and fall asleep dreaming of golden coins.
Halfway through Advent, we’ll put up the Christmas tree and start singing the O Antiphons around it at bedtime, anticipating Christmas Eve when we’ll finally load the branches down with all our best homemade ornaments. Outside, Christmas lights appear on the bushes and a wreath on the front door. Inside, sparkly tinsel lines the doorways and the magi make haste to arrive to the mantle of the fireplace where the Nativity awaits.
Over the years, these activities, along with so many others, create Advent traditions that nestle into the inner recesses of these little children’s hearts. These traditions begin to define the concept of “home” for them.
Mysterious and powerful
The meaning of home is as mysterious as it is powerful. Each of us is born into the world as a newcomer and stranger, much like Christ was born in a way-station for travelers. Each is given a place to inhabit, a place to call our own that we have never known before, all potential, a place in which to dwell and grow until it becomes home. We ponder it with fondness, a place of safety, comfort, and memory. It’s a place in which we begin to fit, a retreat from the capricious whims of life swirling outside that front door. We put down roots and begin to love the others in our home in that particular way we call family. We love it so much so that, if we must leave it, we become nostalgic and homesick.
The season of Advent is all about home. This is true not only intuitively, as families make a point to gather and celebrate Christmas together, but also in how the scripture readings at Mass focus on the homecoming of Christ, first as he makes his home with us on Christmas and then as the reality of Heaven as our permanent home that arrives with his second coming.
The word Advent refers to an arrival, but it’s not a theoretical arrival at some later date, it’s the ongoing arrival of a presence in its fullness. We are not yet in our eternal home but, in a very real sense, are already halfway over the threshold. We are even now in the presence of God as he continues to make his home with us.
This reveals the importance of how a family builds a home together. It isn’t to be taken for granted, because it’s so much more than a building. At home, our family is in the embrace of domestic love. The physical space we cherish doesn’t remain enclosed, but it cradles us, opening itself up and setting us free to expand and develop. What we share together as father, mother, and children is embodied in our home and the soul of our love is given shape and substance by our traditions, the memories in the place, the lives we share within it. A home nurtures presence. That presence sets us free.
As a father, this is what I want to provide for my children. It will give them much-needed stability as they go out to make their way in the world. They can be bold, knowing that their home always remains.
Watching and waiting
It seems to me that, in our families, we do so much collective watching and waiting, simply enjoying the presence of those we love. This is what then propels us forward as individuals.
As John Cuddeback, a popular writer on home and family, writes,
“It is not that life is circumscribed by the walls of home; our life must be broader than that. The point is that our interior life, our marriage, our parenting, our friendships, and our place in the broader community, are profoundly enriched when the physical place of our home is a stable foundation and center from which life radiates.”
It’s almost as if the entire universe eventually comes under the roof and everything becomes home.
I suppose this all sounds like a flight of poetical fancy, but what I’m trying to describe is intuitive. We all feel it. We feel it glowing like an ember. It’s that sense of well-being and abiding love that we feel, for instance, while helping the children glue together the gingerbread house with icing, in the smell of the Christmas cookies baking in the kitchen, or the feeling the head of a sleeping child fall onto your shoulder at midnight Mass. These intimate moments clue us in that, no matter what’s happening outside the doors of home, all manner of things shall be well.
This is why we put so much effort into our traditions. They’re important. We’re building home, nurturing the ember until it bursts into flame. Sure, it may seem like a little thing, all the little traditions that create a home for our children, but they provide the stability our children need to flourish as they go out to establish their own lives and homes of their own.
So, whatever your traditions are, big or small, nurture them. They create a home that gathers us and, like Advent, reveals the presence of incarnate love, a love ever-arriving, ever ancient, ever new.