Sunday, December 30, 2012

Merry Christmas from the less-than-holy mother

The Holy Family at Table - Jan Mostaert
Merry Christmas! It is still Christmas, after all – the sixth day…and while I’m glad to report there are no geese a laying in my living room, I’m not sure the mess would be substantially bigger if there were. I’m still totally overwhelmed and wondering how I will ever get things in order. At least if there were geese, we could have had eggs for breakfast.

It’s the Feast of the Holy Family today, honoring Jesus, his mother Mary, and his earthly father, Joseph. Falling as it almost always does on the Sunday after Christmas, it seems to be a feast celebrating the ordinary right smack in the middle of the extraordinary – a recognition that Jesus became who He was in the context of an ordinary family, just like we do. He had people…parents, cousins, extended family…a context, roots, a center from which to grow and develop.

Looking around at my (unholy) family, I appreciate this feast. Jesus’ holiness grew up in the middle of the mundane...the same kind of domestic everyday that surrounds me. Dishes are stacked in the sink and bags are still packed with dirty clothes from our recent return from my parents’ house. Old and new toys cover every surface – they refuse to be contained – and both bathrooms need cleaning, even though we were gone all week. My eyes search for some space to rest, but I see piles of stuff every place I look. My entire family is suffering with the same stuffy nose and are slightly feverish, achy, and out of sorts. I’m tired and more than a little grumpy today despite two cups of coffee. Tomorrow’s the last day of the year, and it looks like might go out like it came in- as an ordinary, everyday mess.

I can’t remember another year of my life that seemed so much the same at the beginning and the end. Much of this year has passed in the doing of very ordinary things: washing and folding clothes, wiping little faces, sweeping, changing diapers, shopping for groceries, vacuuming floors, cooking and baking. My primary work has been tending to the needs of my family.

Have I grown at all? Is my attitude toward this vocation of mine any better? Am I any kinder, any fuller-of-grace?

I’m not sure. 

Growth often happens despite our best efforts, and I’m sure I’ve grown some. I confess, though, that my attitude is often crummy and that I grumble about the simple things that need to be done even as I’m doing them.

Fortunately, God is with me whether or not I’m particularly full of grace on any given day. And God can use what I have to offer, even if it’s not worth much on its own.

A year ago, I started this blog as a way to practice gratitude, as a way to share some of the struggles and the joys and the humor and the grace of living an everyday life. I’m grateful for each of you that has shared in any part of this last year with our family.

Along the way, I’ve encountered some amazing writers who have become company for me on the journey. One of them is Dwija Borobia, who writes at House Unseen about her own ordinary life (and cracks me up with laughter when I’m in danger of taking things too seriously). A couple of weeks ago, she described motherhood as her path to sanctification.

I think I’m on that path, too.

Motherhood seems to be made of little stuff…a string of ordinary tasks, words, and actions that add up to something much larger. The day-to-day seems insignificant, but the end result is extremely important. And I think it’s possible that God is using the littleness of motherhood to teach me big things. It is possible that making things clean, caring for little people and meeting basic needs, wiping noses and bottoms and faces is making me holy, little by little, whether I like it or not.

I am far from holy. But sacrificing little parts of myself every day in a series of small, seemingly insignificant acts of service to my family is moving me toward God…and every now and then, I’m even aware of becoming more beautiful in the process.

...God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work...Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!        
2 Corinthians 9:8-15

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What if it's too dark to see God?

Early evening these days is nearly totally dark at our kitchen table, even with two purple candles and a pink one lit in our Advent wreath. It seems darker than usual this year. The familiar fuzzy comfort of the season is absent...I feel fierce, raw, angry and afraid. I think of my sister, whose pale Alaskan sun sets early in the afternoon this time of year; after a weak attempt at climbing partway up the sky, it gives up and drops quickly back below the horizon again.

I think I know how that sun feels.

We have been working at Advent, at cultivating the calm contemplation that might be slightly out of reach for a family with children as young as ours. Every day, I've been listening to my playlist, reading books with my children, baking and crafting and knitting and praying to get ready. Every night, I've been faithfully lighting our candles. I've been doing a lot of explaining, helping my son to understand what Advent is all about, teaching him songs and prayers and recipes, watching him as he bites his lip in concentration during a reading, as he smiles and signs himself with a cross, as he bounces in his seat and sings, "Gaude!".

Gaude. Rejoice. It's what we're supposed to be about, our task in even these darkest weeks of the year.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook school last week, I've felt at a loss for words. Usually, I write about faith, about God, about how to be domestic church in an ecumenical family, about how to survive long days with little people when things feel tough. I post recipes for play dough and talk about what books we are reading. I share cooking projects and post pictures of kids painting and smiling. These are the things that make up my life. This is what I am doing, who I am being.

All of it seems so very small now.

Just over a week before Christmas, a gunman in a school in a state I've only driven through has thrown everything into a tailspin. Anxiety has been my constant companion, a sort of unnameable, unearned ache that makes me feel a little frantic. My lists are spiraling out of control. How many loads of laundry need to be done before we leave this weekend for family Christmas? Do we have enough toothpaste for the trip? Should I have bought more curling ribbon? Does any of this even matter?

If I'm honest, I confess that my busy-ness and listmaking are ways of dealing with the anxiety and sadness I feel...that occupying myself with batch after batch of cookies keeps me from thinking about the children who are gone, from wondering about the motives of the shooter, from scrolling through facebook to see my friends and their friends engaging in heated debate about gun control and mental health care. I'm too busy on purpose with all I have to do, even though none of it seems as important as it felt before.

I've been trying to write this post all week, too, without success. My best effort feels weak, like that Alaskan sun...a halfhearted attempt at helping, a band-aid offered to someone who has lost a limb. The scope of this tragedy, the enormous weight carried by the families who have lost a child, dwarfs my capacity to say anything helpful. My words are raindrops in a hurricane. There's nothing I can say that hasn't been said...and the storm of words is so deafening, there's almost no point in speaking, anyway.

It's still Advent, though. This helplessness, this sadness, this brokenness is exactly why I need to keep on keeping watch. I need to wait for God...maybe more this year than ever.

God always shows up. God is still God- unchanging, everlasting it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. We confess it every week in worship- we proclaim God's God-ness every time we say the creeds that define our faith. We cannot proclaim the limitlessness and omnipotence of God in one breath and then say that God has abandoned us in the next breath.

This tragedy did not happen because God is on some big power trip about how we don't allow God in schools. God is God, and God is everywhere. We may invite God into this place or legislate God out of another place, but God does not need our permission to exist or to be present and is there whether we confess belief in God's existence or not. God is at school and in jail and in Wal-mart and wherever else we can imagine and in all the places we can't imagine. It is not up to us.

(How fortunate for us that this is not a decision we are responsible for making.)

God is always in the picture, whether or not we see God. God is there, and God is always for us. We don't always feel it, but it's still true.

What's more, the God I know isn't too busy judging our cultural shift away from organized religion to cry with us. The God I know isn't standing over to the side somewhere with arms crossed, saying "I told you so."

The God I know is standing right with us, right behind us, sharing our pain and our fear. The God I know has God-sized hands big enough to hold all the worry and suffering and torment and anguish. The God I know has arms long enough to wrap us up and hold us close...and that God wants so badly to be with us that God Incarnate came to earth to do just that. To be with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).     
Matthew 1:23

If being with us is that important, maybe we ought to pay more attention to being with each other. If God was willing to come down to earth to keep our company, then keeping company with each other is no small thing. Standing in solidarity with the families in Connecticut, even from thousands of miles away, means something. It is a confession of hope. Maybe it is as dark as we have ever seen it right now, but we will keep watch with you until the light shows up.

So we wait. We watch. We hold our families close. The people around my table, the ones whose eyes are bright in the candlelight as we eat dinner together - they are what matters most right now. And my time with them is what I have. Maybe my territory is small stuff compared to the scope of the suffering out there. But to my children, the smallness in front of us is the universe. This is their world - it's what's before them, it's what they know. And my job as their mother is to help make that world the kind of place that prepares them to go out into the darkness and be lights and shine in the way that only they can.

Jesus said, "You are the light of the world." And they will be. Tending little lights may feel small to me now. But only the presence of little lights- hundreds, thousands, millions of them - can push back the darkness.

It is surely dark right now. Darker than ever. Still, there's a light. It's growing. It's in us, it's in our children...and when we forget about our light or we're too weak to shine, we can hold it out for each other. God's still God. Jesus is still going to be born. We just have to keep watch, to sit together as we wait for the light to show up.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Friday, December 14, 2012

St. Lucy Day from a can

 This is our second St. Lucy Day as a family of 5. Since we have a Lucy (our oldest daughter, otherwise known as The Bug), we feel we ought to mark the occasion. Lucy may only be older by 40 minutes, but she believes it still can just tell when you talk with her.

Last year, we said, "Oh, it's St Lucy Day. We should probably do something." The Sisters were not quite 3 months old. Our celebration last year consisted of changing lots of diapers, rocking and nursing. Those things took all day. There simply wasn't time for anything else.

This year, we have (a little) more time, and I fully intended to do something for St. Lucy Day.
Unfortunately, it fell the day after the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which we celebrated. I had planned to make the special St. Lucy bread and have it in the morning. When that didn't happen, I thought I'd make it during nap time and have it with soup for dinner.

It turns out, though, that this year I'm the kind of mom who chooses to go for a 5 mile run (on the treadmill) during nap time instead of baking special St. Lucy bread for my daughter's name saint day. I suspect (okay, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt) that my family had a better evening because of my 5 miler than they would have if I had made the bread, no matter how well it turned out. Every mother runner (and probably her husband and children) knows that Grouchy Mommy in the morning + run at naptime = Better, Happier Mommy in the evening. Grouchy Mommy baking bread...well, that's not quite as predictable.

So, no special St. Lucy bread this year. Although we've come a long way in a year, time is still so limited. As you all know, I have my hands full. I know many of you do, too.

Instead of soup and special bread last night, we spontaneously put everyone in pajamas, hopped in the car, went through the drive-thru at McDonald's, and ate in the car while we drove around town looking at Christmas lights. We ended up outside of town in Shenandoah National Park to catch sight of a few of the Geminids in the hours before the meteor shower peaked, then came home and put everyone to bed a little later than usual.

The nicest thing about family traditions, particularly when you are trying to start them, is that they are flexible. They can be adapted to suit the situation in which you find yourself. I am a devout observer of traditions. I am not a fan, however, of rigidity. I grew up in a blended family with stepsiblings who were not always with us on the calendar date of major holidays. Sometimes we celebrated a day before everyone else we knew and sometimes a day after. My mom's favorite phrase during these times was, "We'll just need to play it by ear." I remember all of us skating around the neighborhood in our brand new rollerblades, telling our confused neighbors that Santa had already been to our house when Christmas was still two days away. We were flexible...and it was fine. It all turned out okay.

Things change, and our traditions need to be able to change, too. Traditions are only as good as they make us feel, and if we stress ourselves out and get all weepy over how things aren't going the way we wanted them to, the tradition is serving itself instead of our families. That's not good for anyone.

So, with yesterday having come and gone with no St. Lucy festivities, we celebrated St. Lucy quickly this morning at breakfast, and we did it in a way that worked for us this year. I made a can of cinnamon rolls (the bake fast method, where you spread them out on the cookie sheet - it took less than 10 minutes). We stuck some leftover birthday candles in them and lit them. I quickly made a wreath for Lucy's head out of pipe cleaners and put some more candles in that. (I did not light them.)

Throw in some smiley kids, and there you have it -
Instant celebration.

See those faces? This is what it looks like when you build traditions from the ground up. It's not always perfect, it's not always Pinterest-ing...but it is always worth doing, anyway. We're building a foundation for our families, for our children. We're laying the groundwork for memories and celebrations in years to come. It is enough just to start something, even if it's something out of a can instead of from scratch.

A happy St. Lucy Day to all of you- a day late and slightly imperfect, but still just as meaningful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why I'm baking biscochitos

Biscochitos are tiny little crispy bits of heaven by way of New Mexico. They are the state's official cookie, and they are eaten at Christmas and other festive occasions. When we visited New Mexico two summers ago, we loved them and vowed we would make them at home. All of the recipes I could find then were a little more complicated than I could manage that year. Then last Christmas, I had less time than ever for baking (or anything, really) with the two baby twins needing my care.

This year, I am a more confident baker, and I am baking biscochitos for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.

The real way to make biscochitos is to use your New Mexican great-grandmother's recipe that has been handed down in your family (and about a pound of lard). I have no New Mexican great-grandmother, and this isn't a family recipe. It doesn't belong to me at all- I found it on the website for a New Mexican newspaper - but I'm adding it to my family's traditional celebration for this feast. (No lard, though. I used butter and just a tiny bit of Crisco. Crisco is scary, but lard scares me even more.)

I love Our Lady of Guadalupe. She doesn't belong to me, exactly...maybe no more than the cookie recipe does. Her story, though, reminds me that God always finds ways to meet us where we are and that God is big enough for all of us.

On December 9, 1531, an Aztec peasant named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac Hill. His people had been under the rule of Spanish conquistadores for many years, and the Christian faith had been forced upon them. When he saw the Virgin Mary, though, she looked like him: she was wearing native dress, had brown skin and features like his (instead of like the Spaniards), and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his own language. Juan Diego reported the encounter to the archbishop, who requested proof that the lady was who she claimed to be. The lady instructed him to fill his tilma (cloak) with the roses growing on the hill and take them back to the archbishop. (It was the middle of winter, so the presence of the roses was in itself miraculous.) When Juan Diego followed her directions and opened his tilma to show the roses to the archbishop, they both saw a clear image of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the fabric.

Because the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego's people as one of them and spoke to them in their own language, millions of people converted to Christianity. Where the Spaniards had tried (and failed) to force the people to accept their faith, this apparition brought a message of love and acceptance: truth isn't the property of the people who are persecuting you, there is room for you here, and God wants you just the way you are.

In Mexico and across the United States today, there are Masses and parades and celebrations honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. At our parish, there was a Mass at 5 AM to start the day off, and there will be a dinner with a dance this evening. At our house, there will be a feast of fajitas, queso dip, and tamales. We'll play Mexican music and enjoy each other's company as we remember that God is the God of everyone...including each of us, even when we aren't looking for God. And we'll eat biscochitos for dessert.     
We cut the biscochitos in the shape of stars for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her mantle is full of stars, like the night sky...and it's big enough to cover all of us who want to stand beneath it. From now on, these cookies will be our way of remembering how she came to share God's love with everyone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Best idea ever, Vol. 1

Sometimes the best idea ever is the simplest thing...the kind of idea that, when I see it someplace (or even better, when it unfolds in my own brain!), makes me wonder why I hadn't thought of it before. It seems obvious, like it was right there in front of me all along.

Brilliance can be simple. Things don't have to be complicated to be pure genius. Sometimes, parenting small people produces special opportunities for these remarkable ideas to surface- and when they do surface, I think we should be sharing them with one another.

With that in mind, I give you The Best Idea Ever.

(Okay. It's possibly not really the best idea ever. That's not the point. The point is, it's a great idea, and it's simple, and you can do it, too, and you'll be glad you did.)

Are you ready?
Here it comes:

Wash your toy dinosaurs in the sink. With bubbles.

Ours were really dirty after being in the moon sand box. Today we cleaned out that box to make cloud dough and rescued them...all covered in sand and cornstarch. Poor dirty guys.

They got a bubble bath in the sink, complete with bath toys and snuggling in a warm towel afterward.

It felt like an Advent miracle- the carnivores and the herbivores shall lie down together, and a little child shall bathe them...and that little child shall be kept busy, happy, engaged, and relatively quiet during his sisters' full hour and a half morning nap.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

St. Nicholas, take one

This is our family's first observance of St. Nicholas' Day. Our logical, intellectual, science-loving preschooler was about to throw all belief in the invisible out the window after seeing Santa in a mall near my mom's house at Thanksgiving. Sensing that we needed to shift the emphasis a little from the Santa question, I suggested we start celebrating this feast to honor the historical person of St. Nicholas, who was so much cooler than Santa, anyway (see Haley's excellent post on him here at Carrots for Michaelmas).

I won't go so far as to say it was a bad idea for us to do this. I just think I went about it wrong. Interested in learning from my mistakes? Here is the breakdown of what you should do if you want your St. Nicholas feast day celebration to feel like it's turning out badly:

  • Realize that you aren't sure whether to set out the shoes on the night before (St. Nicholas' Eve?) or the night of the feast. Pick the night before because you're excited. (Ignore the sneaking suspicion you may have at this point that this is about you and not about St. Nicholas or the children. A moment of self-awareness at this point could ruin all the fun.)

  • Be sure to get treats that are too big to fit into the children's tiny shoes (more because of their tiny feet than the bigness of the treats). Attempt to shove the card game into your child's shoes anyway and get frustrated when it doesn't fit. Decide to save the Santa-hat-wearing rubber ducks for the children's stockings because you hurt your hand trying to cram them into the shoes.

  • Let your child have hot chocolate at breakfast (it's a feast day, right?), then grumble at him when he's too full to really eat anything. 

  • Unsuccessfully try to read your beautiful new St. Nicholas book to your child, who will only talk about planets and runs away shouting something about nebulae when you try to change the subject. 

  • Decide to bake cookies with the child, but don't bother to double-check the ingredients (especially if you bake and generally have all that stuff). Realize that all the traditional cookie recipes for St. Nicholas' Day call for anise. (Who has that?) Decide to substitute cloves. Grumble at the child when he jumps up and down on his stool and spills flour all over everything and everyone.

  • Don't chill the dough fully because you're in a hurry to get to a playdate and you want to take fresh baked cookies along to share. Struggle to roll out sticky dough, even though you know better. When your child approaches and is chattering at you about VY Canis Majoris and how it's the biggest star and how it can burn up everything in our solar system, tell him, "Sssssshhhh!" in a very aggravated way. Feel guilty, but keep struggling with the dough.

  • Burn your hand while taking out the cookies. Say, "Awesome," in as sarcastic a voice as possible. When your child asks what is so awesome, roll your eyes at him.

  • Anger the babies while waking them up early for the playdate (for which you are already quite late). Feel frustrated with them for being fussy. Allow a small part of your brain to think they are doing it on purpose just to annoy you.

  • Realize that your celebration feels entirely uncelebratory and that it's your own fault.

My attitude needs a reset button today. I am the cause of my own frustration - it's not really about my kids or the cookies or any of it. I have an idea of how I want to celebrate the feast, and I've tried to force our day to fit it. Really, it ought to be the other way around. Really, I should start with the day I have, and then see what I can do to make it feel like a celebration.

My children are kind of grumpy today. I'm kind of grumpy, too. We're making each other grumpier. We did the shoes and the cookies. That might be all the celebrating we need to do this year.

You know what? It's okay. It's enough. Sometimes, on a day like today with little kids, you have to just cut your losses. SuperSam might remember the shoes for next year, but the girls won't remember anything - it will basically be a blank slate. So for now, instead of worrying about what kind of feasting we should be doing at dinner tonight, I'm going to take a nap. I might even end up ordering pizza and calling it a St. Nicholas' Day gift to myself.

No judgment.

Happy St. Nicholas' Day, y'all.

Church with little kids: Betty Lukens Felt Books

If you've been following along, you know that I've been working on our Mass bag for SuperSam and the Sisters. We take this bag along to church so we have items at hand to help occupy and engage our squirmy brood.

This past weekend at church, the family behind us had two young children and an infant. Somehow, their children were perfectly still and quiet despite not having "stuff" along to keep them that way. Because I was occupied with wrestling the Belle to thwart her pre-walking pew escape skills and preventing SuperSam from rolling his crayons across the floor, I was unable to discover those parents' secret for managing their family (and looking so serene while doing it). Maybe they bribed the kids with the promise of Happy Meals after Mass. Maybe the mother had a taser in her purse. Maybe their kids are just further along the path to sainthood.

It doesn't really matter - handling my children requires serious energy during church. I need some resources to keep everyone reasonably happy and engaged, and I'm willing to incur judgment from people blessed with less wiggly children if necessary.

On my search for appropriate items for our church bag, I came across these felt books from Betty Lukens. Remember Betty Lukens? Her company designed the felt board stories we used to do in Sunday School when we were children.

I was the girl that loved Sunday School...the paste, the little metal scissors, the wooden chairs arranged in a half-circle. I loved it all (at least until I started asking the types of questions that frustrated my teachers and got me sent out to talk with the Minister of Education in his office). The only thing more thrilling to me than winning the Bible drills (where we flipped frantically through the tissue-thin pages of the Bible to find the verse before anyone else did) was being asked to put one of the felt pieces up on the board during the story. The felt grass was so green, and the felt sky was so blue...and the little sheep on the hillside looked so white and fluffy.

I loved those sheep. And I loved, loved, loved those stories.

Now a grown-up, mama version of my goody-goody Sunday School-loving self, I was really excited to find that Betty Lukens has started making portable felt activity books with the same kinds of stories that were on the big felt boards. They have several different ones available and were kind enough to send me the Old Testament Bible Stories to try out for our Mass bag.

There was some work to do to assemble the book. The kit arrived with everything but the scissors and glue. The pieces and pages were arranged in a single, big sheet of felt to be cut out.

Two pages of directions contained everything I needed to know to put the book together. After the cutting was done, pages were glued together on three sides with the top left open to form a pocket. This allows for storage of the pieces for each page inside the pocket, keeping everything together. (Due to the odd number of pages, the last page does not have a back, so there is no pocket for these pieces. I solved this by making a cover for the book and gluing the final page to the back of the cover.) The cutting and assembly took about an hour from start to finish and left quite a pile of felt scraps. I used hot glue for everything that needed to be put together, which worked very well.

There is a slit in the fish's mouth so he can swallow Jonah.
The book is a great addition to our Mass bag. SuperSam likes taking all the pieces out and arranging them on the pew in rows before putting them into the book. I like that this is a quiet activity that occupies his fingers without raising his decibel level. I also like that he is learning some stories in a hands-on way that engages his imagination.

One joy of parenting is passing on to my children things that I loved when I was their age. I'm pleased to find that these felt stories are as interesting and enjoyable for my little boy as they were for me when I was little.

(It will be okay, though, if he's not quite the Sunday School nerd that I was.)

Disclosure: Betty Lukens provided me with a felt activity book to review for this post. I was not compensated for this review.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent linkup: in case you haven't had enough...

I'm participating in an Advent linkup with some other bloggers this morning. It's being hosted by Carrots for Michaelmas, Dualing Moms and Molly Makes Do. People will be posting about Advent traditions, upcoming holy days, music, crafts and activities, simple gift giving, how to teach children about the liturgical year, and more. There are a bunch of great writers participating, and we'd love for you to come and check it out. Just click on the button below to find out more.

My Button

Names of Jesus advent chain

This morning, SuperSam and I found ourselves with some time to fill. He was feeling crafty, which doesn't happen all that often. There are probably a thousand exciting, beautiful, intricate Advent project ideas out there right now that we could choose to do together. Sometimes, though, the simplest projects are exactly what I need to help me connect with my children and with the season. Today, we made an Advent paper chain with one of Jesus' names on each link.

Jesus is called by many names in the Bible. When the angel comes to announce to Mary that she will bear God's son, he tells her that the baby will be called Emmanuel. Some of his names are taken from ancient prophets, like Isaiah. Each Gospel writer introduces new names for Jesus, and St. Paul gives us many more names in his letters to the early church. Finally, some of the powerful images for Jesus come from names used for him in Revelation.

Our Advent chain has 24 links, one for each day until Christmas Day. SuperSam and I worked together to choose our favorite names of Jesus and wrote one on each link of chain. Our plan is to remove a link each day and read the name of Jesus and the scripture verse where that name originates.

Here is how to make your own Advent chain, if you want to join us in this practice.

What you'll need: 
  • Paper to cut into strips for the chain links (we used scrapbook paper)
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • A writing implement (pen, pencil, marker, stub of crayon - whatever you have will work)
  • A calendar (optional)

You probably know how many days there are from the beginning of Advent to Christmas Day. Since SuperSam is just beginning to understand how days and weeks and months and seasons fit together, he asks me every day if it is Christmas yet (I like to send him here for the answer and a giggle). I thought it would be helpful to have him count the days on the calendar to figure out how many links we would need. We started with the first day of Advent (December 2) and made a link for each day until Christmas.

First, cut your paper into strips. Our strips were 6 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, which made nice, fat links. If I were doing this again, I would make them almost twice that long so they would be easier for SuperSam to link together.

This is a great way for a young child to practice cutting. I made "starter cuts" for SuperSam at the edge of the paper, and he followed them up with his scissors to make the cuts (all the while saying "squeeze squeeze SLIDE, squeeze squeeze SLIDE" and making a noise like squealing brakes when he reached the edge. Ah, crafts with preschool boys...never boring.

Once you have a pile of strips, write one of the names of Jesus on the back of each strip. (There is a thorough list available here.) Here are the ones we used with the scripture references, in case you'd like to borrow any of them:

A Precious Stone - 1 Peter 2:6
The Builder - Hebrews 3:3
The Vine - John 15:5
The Son of the Living God - Matthew 16:16
Emmanuel (God with us) - Matthew 1:23
The Truth - John 14:6
The Root of Jesse - Isaiah 11:10
Prince of Peace - Isaiah 9:6
A Sure Foundation - Isaiah 28:16
The Word - John 1:1
Lily of the Valley - Song of Songs 2:1
The Resurrection - John 11:25
The Lamb of God - John 1:29
The Way - John 14:6
The Bread of Life - John 6:35
Alpha and Omega - Revelation 1:8
Dayspring from on High - Luke 1:78
The Head - Ephesians 4:15
Lord of Lords - Revelation 17:14
Light of the World - John 8:12
Bright and Morning Star - Revelation 22:16
The Sun of Righteousness - Malachi 4:2
King of Kings - Revelation 17:14
Messiah - John 4:25
King of Glory - Psalm 24:10
Savior of the World - 1 John 4:14
The Good Shepherd - John 10:11

To make the chain, form the first link into a circle and fasten it with a piece of tape. If you want to be fancy, you can use double-sided tape so it doesn't show. We are not fancy, so we used regular old transparent tape (which is never quite transparent, so you can see if it you look closely!). Insert a second strip through the first strip to link them together, then make another circle. Keep going until you have threaded all the links together to form a chain. If you're working with a child who can't do this part by himself, this is a good time to work together. SuperSam lined up pieces of tape all along the table edge and chose which strips should go next in the chain. He also liked putting the piece of tape on each link while I held it (although his success rate with that was about 50% - we had to redo a number of them when the tape totally missed the seam). It's all about the process, right?

Finally, SuperSam wanted to make a star to put at the top of the chain and write "Jesus" on it. His star is a Jesus Star, he said, but it's most like Rigel (one of his favorites because it's a double star and it's blue- the hottest kind of star). He also drew planets orbiting the star (because we just can't do anything without including planets these days).

I hope this simple craft gives you time to reflect on some of the many different facets of Jesus. We often think this time of year of the little baby boy who was born in a manger, but taking a step back to consider the bigger picture of who Jesus was and is can be a good thing, too. A great number of these names for Jesus show up in hymn texts and carols we will sing during Advent and Christmas. Taking a few minutes to remind ourselves (or to learn for the first time) some of the names now can make singing those favorite songs even more meaningful this year.

Blessings during this first week of Advent!

My Button

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's beginning to look (and sound) a little like Advent.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. The season of preparation has officially arrived.

Deep breath. That doesn't mean I have to be prepared now. It means it's time to start preparing.

(For those of you who for whom this whole Advent thing is unfamiliar or who might not share my enthusiasm for the topic, it's okay. This just happens to be one of those times when my liturgical geekery is on full display. Once January comes and Epiphany happens and the Magi have left the building, I will go back to writing about other stuff. Promise.)

So far: I have replaced the fall wreath on our door with an appropriately wintery (though not overly Christmas-y) looking one that I made. I love how it turned out. We have thrown away the moldy jack 'o' lantern. Right now, there's still a fall-looking flag up on my little garden flagpole, but I can change it tomorrow. We lit the first candle on the Advent wreath tonight at dinner, but we didn't have time to dig the actual wreath out from the attic, so we just have the candles in the wreath form. Not pretty, but functional. It was fine. There's plenty of time.

Many Christian churches have an Advent wreath. It has four candles, usually purple or dark blue, around the circle and a single white candle in the center. (Sometimes the third outside candle is pink...more on that when we get to the third Sunday.) One of the outer candles is lit each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas to symbolize the coming Light of Christ. The center candle symbolizes Christ and is lit on Christmas. It is common for families to have a wreath in their homes, as well, and to light the candles together. We received a wreath as a wedding gift and have enjoyed lighting it every year since we were married in 2001.

With little children, the traditional readings can get a little long. I want SuperSam and The Sisters to enjoy our tradition of using the wreath, so I have been searching for a resource that can help us make this happen.

I found O Radiant Dawn: 5 Minute Prayers Around the Advent Wreath by Lisa Hendey and ordered it last week. There are short readings and prayers to use daily during Advent. Each day's reading lasts just a few minutes, so it's perfect for us to use at dinner together each evening (which is when we usually light our candles). The readings focus on light and dark, so it's easy for SuperSam to relate to them. (Note to fellow liturgy geeks: the book does not follow the lectionary, but it does include the O Antiphons, so I'm not complaining. Besides, we can use it again next year.)

A reader asked me this week what I was doing to help slow myself down (see here if you missed why I need to do that). I have decided to put notes to myself in some prominent places (bathroom mirrors, refrigerator door, coffee pot, dashboard of the car, and laptop, to start) that say things like "Breathe, there's time," and "Waiting IS doing something," and "Slow down, it's just Advent." I haven't actually done this yet, but since the notes are supposed to remind me that I have time, I am not stressing about it. We'll see if they help me keep myself from rushing ahead to Christmas too quickly.

We have been listening to the Advent playlist I created (yes, I know that was cheating, but I needed to test it out for you). I'm posting it here on the blog for you in case your ears are hungry for some not-yet-Christmas music. It's about 2 hours long...who knew there were so many Advent songs?

Advent music is strange in some ways, and hearing these songs can be a little jarring when we are so used to Christmas music this time of year. Putting together this playlist made it clear to me that as a culture, we have moved away from observing this season. Most of the compositions are quite old - classical pieces, motets, chant and plainsong make up the bulk of the music I included - but a few contemporary artists have recorded some of the old hymn texts in new settings, and there are some lovely instrumental arrangements, too. The tone is contemplative, often solemn, occasionally apocalyptic- a definite contrast with the stuff being played over the loudspeakers at the mall right now. It is working for me, but if you're in the mood for something totally upbeat and cheery, you might look elsewhere. (Or just check out the a capella version of Sleepers, wake! down below - so catchy!) You might need to download free Spotify software if you don't already have it to hear the songs...I'm trying to find a way around that.

Here is the text of one traditional Advent hymn that has been running through my head:

People, look East. The time is near of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look East, and sing today: Love, the Guest, is on the way.

I especially like the part about making your house "fair as you are able." Maybe the composer had a bunch of little kids and shared my aversion to sweeping and never quite got around to dusting her bookshelves. Fortunately, I still have time to clean things up before Christmas (and Love, the Guest) arrives. So yes, people, look east, by all means - just don't look behind my couch (at least not for a few more weeks).

If the cleanliness of my floors is any indication, I'm doing okay with the whole "taking my time" thing. I'll keep you posted.