Are You Preparing for Finals or Christmas? How to Live This Advent Well

This year Advent begins in the days right after Thanksgiving and, for many, right before finals. Advent is supposed to be a time of sharing in the long preparation for Jesus’ first coming and thereby renewing our ardent desire for His second coming1. However, as a college student and even as a missionary, I frequently struggled with the beginning of Advent feeling more like sharing in the long preparation for the end of the semester and renewing my ardent desires for whatever plans I had over break.

So, what do we do? How can we live in a world preparing for the end of the semester and break plans and not forget to prepare for Christmas? Thankfully, the Church has some advice for us! Below are some ideas for preparing for Christmas while preparing for finals.

Students in Adoration at Boyne Mountain

Waiting

The Church tells us that Advent is a time of waiting, conversion and joyful hope2. It is a time of waiting-memory and waiting-supplication. We remember the first coming of Christ, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”3, and we remember the waiting of the Israelites for that blessed day.  We also supplicate, or ask humbly, for Jesus to bring about the end of time and come again in His final, glorious coming.

Some years I’ve tried to live out waiting by waiting to put up decorations, waiting to listen to Christmas music and waiting to do anything that felt like Christmas; but then I would also forget Christmas was coming at all. I had to find those things that helped me remember Christmas was coming but that it was not here yet. Here are my three favorites:

  • Christmas Decorations: Maybe it’s a mini Christmas tree, a string of Christmas lights or a full-blown Christmas explosion. When everyone else’s mind is on finals, I find it helpful to put up at least a few decorations, even if I have to take them down a week or two later when the semester is over. Consider at least setting up a manager (or a picture of one) in your study space. Tracing back to St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s, Christians have placed empty cribs in their homes during Advent to live out the waiting-memory of the first Christmas. Christians gather around them to pray, read the Bible and encounter the mystery of Christ’s birth. Can you print off a picture to tape to your desk, change the background of your computer and phone or hold a craft night and make one out of popsicle sticks like this?
  • Advent Wreath: A circle of four candles, three purple and one pink, has become a symbol of Advent in many Christian homes, particularly in North America and many cultures with ties to Germany. The progressive lighting of candles, one each Sunday, is meant to walk us through the various stages of salvation history leading up to Christ’s birth4. Maybe you don’t (or can’t) have candles, but can you take a couple minutes each Sunday of Advent to pray and light a virtual candle here or participate in these gift-activities from the University of Dayton?
  • Packing and Traveling: Do you have to pack up your stuff and travel before Christmas? So did Joseph and Mary before the first Christmas. As you decide what to take and what to leave behind or when to depart and how long to take, remember the Holy Family. Think of the difficulties faced by Mary during her pregnancy, and imagine what inconveniences and stresses they might have faced. Are you not spending this Christmas where you wished you were or with the people you’d want to? Draw near to Joseph and Mary, who found no room for them in the inn as Mary was about to give birth to Jesus5. The external circumstances of the first Christmas were not well-suited to the occasion. Yours might not be either, but can you let your circumstances lead you to waiting-supplication? What frustrations and sorrows during this time can lead your heart to waiting-supplication for the time when heaven and earth will pass away and all of this will be no more?

Advent Wreath

Conversion

As we remember Christ’s first coming and pray for the hastening of His second coming, we might also remember just how ill-prepared we are in this moment for our final judgement. Thus, Advent is also a time of conversion. Advent is a time to heed the call of the prophets, summed up in the cry of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”6.

  • Frequent the Sacraments: Finals is a great time to add one or more daily Masses to your schedule. Many of the readings at Mass during Advent quote the prophets and their call to conversion. Maybe you normally have a class that conflicts with the times offered on your campus. Does your finals schedule free you up around that time? Most churches also hold special penance services during Advent to help as many people as possible receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Find out when they are in your area, and plan to go to one. Or beat the crowd and go during your parish’s weekly scheduled times. Not Catholic? Now is a great time to join RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). These are classes especially created to help non-Catholics explore the faith. A lot of parishes begin their RCIA meetings at the start of Advent.
  • Remember Your Humanity: Christmas is the celebration of God become flesh and a reminder that we too are flesh. Your friends and classmates may be pulling all-nighters studying, skipping meals or eating junk, but you are called to live differently. Losing sleep to study will likely cause you to do worse on a test rather than better. Can you grow in discipline and trust by going to bed and waking at the same time each day? Before modern electricity, staying up late was more difficult. Today, it is often the easier choice. The same spiritual growth in discipline now may be achieved by turning off the lights, setting your phone to quiet mode and going to bed.
  • Advent Devotionals: Your Catholic center, parish, or Newman center may be giving away Advent devotional books for free, or you could check out these ones from Ascension Press or Word on Fire. You may find that their daily meditations center your prayer and help calm your scattered mind, but don’t feel like you have to complete the whole thing or you failed. It is okay to skip a day or two to just sit in silence with our Lord, cry about your stress or a bad grade or meditate on something else that struck you from your day. Advent devotionals are meant as an aid to your prayer, not to control it.

Hope

Finally, Advent is a time of joyful hope. We have been saved, we are being saved and we will be saved. Advent is a time of joyful hope that the conversion that has begun in us (and in the world) will be brought to completion7. We have joyful hope that “we shall become like Him, for we shall see Him as He really is”8.

Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica

  • Give to the Poor: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”9 Christ is present in the poor in a special way. If you hope to see Him as He is, you must see Him in the poor. Not as a helpless stranger upon whom you have the power to bestow great blessing, but as a human being with talents, skills and purpose. The end of the semester is a great time to give of what you have to the poor. Many college campuses will hold food collections or have a place for you to donate items from your dorm as you pack up and move out for break. These are great efforts to support during Advent, and I challenge you to enter into holiday giving with a joyful hope that what God has promised will come to be. Remember the dignity and unique unrepeatable gift of the person on the receiving end of what you give.
  • Celebrate Mary: We wouldn’t have Christmas as it is without Mary. It is Mary who said yes with her whole being and conceived and bore Christ in the flesh. She waited with expectation for the Messiah, and she was the first to experience the joy of His coming into the world. She gave herself to Jesus in a way that is unmatched by any other human being. Advent is filled with opportunities to journey with Mary in joyful hope that you and I and all of humanity may come to fall deeply in love with her Son. The Mass frequently celebrates Mary in an exemplary way during the season of Advent. Make a point to attend Mass and do something to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th.
  • Gift-Preparing Parties: Rather than gathering with your friends to celebrate Christmas early, can you celebrate the joyful hope and waiting of Advent with a gift-buying adventure or a gift-wrapping party? Take a break from studying and plan a quick trip with some friends to a few stores. Help each other pick out gifts for your loved ones. Tell stories and share your favorite things about the people for whom you are buying gifts and how they bring you closer to Jesus. Or maybe you are crafty and can host a craft night for your friends to make gifts for their loved ones. You could also have everyone bring a few gifts they have already bought and host a gift-wrapping party. You can have music, cookies and all the other joys of celebrating with your friends but still keep your heart in a place of waiting.

What stuck out to you from this list? What are your favorite ways to celebrate Advent? Try picking out one thing from each of the above categories to commit to this Advent. Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, conversion and hope. It is my prayer for you that this Advent may be exactly that and that this Christmas you find yourself closer to and more in love with the Messiah, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church 524
  2. Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, accessed December 2001, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html#Chapter%20Four.
  3. Jn 1:14
  4. Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, accessed December 2001, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html#Chapter%20Four.
  5. Lk 2:7
  6. Mt 3:2
  7. cf. Phil 1:6
  8. Jn 3:2
  9. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980).
Amber Cybulski
After serving as a FOCUS missionary for one year at Carnegie Mellon University and 5 years at Towson University in Maryland, Amber now works for FOCUS’ Formation Department. She holds a Bachelor's in education from Bowling Green Education and spent 2 years in northwest Ohio teaching everything from math and logic to Latin and Spanish. After a whirlwind romance from Florida to Ohio, through Maine and Maryland, Amber married Steven in July of 2016. Together they have 3 children Jude Marie (in heaven), Tobiah, and Theodore. Amber loves consuming great books and delicious ice cream. She’s a teacher at heart and loves collecting new skills like woodworking, sewing, or painting. As Amber once said, “Teach me something new today and I’ll be teaching it to the village tomorrow.” She grew up in an actual village, the Village of Pleasant Hill where her family has lived for over 100 years.

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