By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
Jessica Donohue, parish catechetical leader in Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, believes that thriving during Advent and Christmas begins with family relationships.
“With the hectic nature of the holiday season, it is unfortunately sometimes too easy to neglect that,” she noted. “But caring for our ‘domestic Church’ is so important and really affects our other relationships as well.”
Donohue was one of several parish directors/coordinators of religious education who discussed not only what it means to give and receive well during Advent and Christmas, but also how in the spirit of the Blessed Mother – who received the Christ child in her womb and immediately sought to nurture her cousin Elizabeth – Catholic families can remember the link between humility, holiness and humanness.
“There is a great virtue in … following joyfully even if we don’t yet fully understand,” said John McGuire, parish catechetical leader in St. Paul Parish, Princeton. “Imagine the awe and shock the Blessed Virgin Mary must have experienced when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that her world would be turned upside down by God’s love!”
The Blessed Mother was linked to her cousin, he said, through their mutual expectancy. “Both were preparing for a miraculous birth, both gifts from God, and with the Blessed Mother’s excitement and anticipation, is it any wonder that she rushed to her cousin’s side. They were able to care for each other in a very unique way … they both found support.”
“From that example,” he continued, “it seems we can learn that the greatest link between humility, holiness and humanness we can find is a deep sense of accountability to those we love and are loved by.”
Likewise, McGuire noted how “Jesus is all about relationships” and serves as the perfect model of how one should relate not only to God the Father, but also to fellow neighbors. “As we seek to live and thrive in relationships with others, Christ is born in us.”
The season’s preparation, he continued, involves readying both our homes and our hearts.
“We prepare … through decoration, prayer and reconciliation,” McGuire said, “and our world through acts of charity … particularly to those at the margins of society.”
Being a gracious receiver, Donohue said, is just as important as being a cheerful giver. During December, the parish families of the religious education program in Mount Holly choose three Advent activities to do together as a family, and one of the options allows children to experience both.
“A younger child will make a baby Jesus figure and a manger, and someone else in the family places a piece of yarn [hay] in the manger each time he or she observes the child doing something kind or loving,” Donohue explained. “This activity … allows children to experience the importance of giving and receiving … since this concept is one that really goes beyond tangible gifts.”
Taking time for one another is another component of generosity, she said, and an important aspect of spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ.
“It’s so important in our call to love one another that, like Mary, we are paying attention to the people in our midst who especially need to know the love of Jesus through our care and concern,” Donohue reflected.
John Paglione, parish catechetical leader in Sacred Heart Parish, Bay Head, knows all too well the task. Advent and Christmas in his parish are filled with ways for both children and parents to participate in the heart of charity – beginning with a season-long food drive for St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in Point Pleasant.
“We’ve sent them several hundred items already,” Paglione said. “When the kids put on their Christmas play, we ask people to bring in donations for the pantry as well.”
The parish hosts a Friendship Dinner every year on Jan. 1 – one of 12 that occur throughout the area, one per month for the year, in cooperation with other area parishes.
“We always do the January dinner… we ask parishioners to donate and prepare ham, turkey and fixings,” Paglione continued. “Then I get T-shirts for the kids [printed with] Angels of the Sacred Heart on them; they wear the shirts when they help serve, help people get to their tables.”
On the receiving end, kids are asked to come up with Christmas wishes that they have for others. They also come up with a special intention during closing prayers, which many parents are present for and participate in.
“They receive love and joy from that,” Paglione said. “I’m so proud of them; [the kids] want to come, [as do] the teens who come back to help.”