This is the season when a familiar question begins echoing in homes throughout the land: "What do you want for Christmas?" We've all heard answers ranging from reasonable (a CD, a toy truck, a sweater) to poignant (a job, good health, friends) to outrageous (a sports car, a five-thousand-dollar pinball machine from The Sharper Image catalogue).
Compared to the actual promise of Christmas, though, even the most ambitious wish lists fall short. God invites us and our families to set our sights on something higher—to seek nothing less than the "peace on earth" announced by angels at the birth of the Prince of Peace (Luke 2:13-14).
Peace is the deepest need and longing of our hearts and of our world. And peace is the gift that Jesus came to bring. Throughout his life on earth, he spoke peace to all who would listen and promised peace as his lasting gift. He reconciled us to God and to one another "by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:20). He declared peacemakers "blessed" and called his followers to continue his mission of peace and reconciliation.
Advent is the perfect opportunity to get ready to receive the gift in a new and deeper way. As the season begins, prayerfully reflect on a few questions. Then talk them over with your spouse and, age permitting, with your children: Lord, where do you want to bring peace into my life by your coming? Into our family's life? How can I cooperate with your plan? What can we offer you as a family this Advent to further your work of bringing peace on earth?
Here are a few simple thoughts to help you draw up your own family plan for how to "seek peace and pursue it" this Advent (Psalm 34:14).
A Peaceful Pace. "We begin Advent with a critical look at the calendar, slashing without mercy all but the most necessary commitments," writes a mother of three.
"I don't want to take the celebration out of Christmas," she says. "It is a time for feasting and joy. Decorating, baking, and partying with friends and family are all appropriate ways of celebrating Jesus' birth. But I know I can't do it all. If I want to make room for quiet prayer time, simple family fun, and sharing with others, some other good, fun things have to go. Each Advent I ask myself: How far am I willing to leap in faith?" (Mary Cronk Farrell, Celebrating Faith: Year-Round Activities for Catholic Families).
Take that leap, and slash away at your usual crowd of activities. Then fill in some of the resulting holes in your schedule with times for personal and family prayer—weekday Mass, Scripture reading, an hour of adoration, evening prayers around the Advent wreath or by the manger. . . . Choose an approach you can reasonably sustain, and give it priority.
Peace with God. A woman I know was sitting at the doctor's office waiting for a routine physical, when she had a stroke. Days later, as she began to recover her faculties, her first thought was: I've got to get right with God! For some time, she had been rationalizing an area of sin in her life. Her brush with death brought her to her senses and gave her an urgent desire to repent.
Making peace with God doesn't have to be precipitated by a stroke! If there is unrepented sin in our lives, we can receive forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With our children, we can talk about what it means to have peace with the Lord, then take advantage of Advent penance services and go to Confession as a family.
Peace with One Another. As preparation for his coming at Christmas, offer the Prince of Peace some effort you've made to bring peace into your relationships with others. Are you miffed about something your nephew did? Give him a friendly call anyway. Do you tune out when your spouse starts worrying out loud about the kids? Listen up, and look for ways to bring God's peace into the situation.
A good prayer for this project is the one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Lord, make me a channel of your peace." And the right spirit was set out by St. John Chrysostom, who urged perseverance in the face of rebuffs: "God pleads with us every day, and we refuse to listen—yet he doesn't stop pleading. Shouldn't you do the same?"
Messengers of Peace. The Christmas proclamation of "peace on earth" turns our attention to areas of the world that are torn by war and violence. And because "peace" in Scripture refers to people's well-being and welfare, it also touches on issues of justice and human rights. Looking beyond the family circle, what can be done to help the cause of peace?
In one family, evening prayers around the Advent wreath include intercession for one of the continents of the world. In another family, the children have played "Advent Angel" for countries rather than for family members, with each child choosing a country to research, report on, and pray for throughout the season.
Another suggestion: Find out about local, national, and international organizations that work with the needy. Choose one or more projects to support as a family, even beyond Christmas. On a more personal level, reach out to a lonely neighbor, shut-in, and other person in need.
The Right Gift. You can't guarantee that no one will give you oven mitts, an ugly tie, or some other wrong gift this Christmas. But no matter what you find under the tree, you'll find the right gift in your heart—if you've made peace your Advent theme. n
Louise Perrotta is an editor at The Word Among Us.