“Why did you choose theology?” That’s usually one of the first questions I get in job interviews. Over the last months of job hunting, I have got used to delivering my rehearsed answer: I’ve been Catholic my whole life, had a “crisis” in college when my best laid plans went awry, switched to theology and philosophy, and now I am looking for an income. All of that is true, but a more holistic answer to “why theology?” goes all the way back to my childhood.
I tenderly remember making a Jesse Tree with my mother one December when I was very young. We cut out and coloured in different symbols representing significant people and events from Salvation history leading up to Christ’s birth: a rainbow for Noah and his ark, a harp for David, a bundle of sticks for Abraham and Isaac.
We crowned the tree with a Chi Rho symbol. “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1).
Saints also fascinated me. I gobbled up the little books of saints my grandmother gave us grandkids. Each flip of the page brought a new painting of a saint and a description of their life, feast day and symbols. I can recall perfectly the image of St Lucy, a blonde woman, holding a palm and a gold dish with two eyes on it. I would later learn about the tradition of St Lucy’s Day wreaths.
St Nicholas’s story was also in these books. Nicholas’s importance was reinforced by the celebration of his feast day by my extended family. We would gather at my grandparents, hear the story again, and then receive presents of chocolate coins and oranges. The next day, we would find presents in the shoes we had placed by the front door. This commitment to St Nicholas led my zealous first-grade self to argue that Santa was not real, but the spirit of St Nicholas was and he inspired us to give each other presents.
Advent was full of tradition, from the Jesse Tree and St Nicholas’s Day to filling a manger with straw and lighting the Advent wreath. My interest in theology and faith life was formed in these traditions. My life was full of these practices. I did not need to look to anything else to fill my life with joy, peace and satisfaction.
Everyone knows we are in the midst of a catechetical crisis. It seems that every week we hear of a new poll or survey showing that Catholics either do not know or choose to contradict Church teaching. “More education” is usually the gut reaction to these distressing stories. However, I would argue that the crisis is more fundamentally a crisis in formation, specifically formation in tradition and practice. We have deprived our homes and churches of little sacramentals or simply kept the trappings of them while abandoning the underlying catechesis of these traditions. Our lives are filled by the world instead of God.
The Church has always appreciated how ritual and practice form belief. It is no coincidence that Mass is a ritual, full of actions that convey the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and our lives. St Francis organised the first Nativity scene to show Christ’s supremely humble Incarnation. These and other religious traditions filled and oriented the lives of our forebears in faith.
Reflecting on my own journey of faith has made me appreciate the catechesis I received in traditional devotions and practices. Before I could even write about the connection between the Old and New Testament, I was already affirming it by making a Jesse Tree crowned with Christ. Before I knew what the corporal and spiritual works of mercy were, I was reading about them in the stories of the saints. Catechesis and knowledge of the faith was nourished and grew out of this faith-filled life I was fortunate to be given.
Reclaiming Advent in our own homes as a time of preparation for and anticipation of the Incarnate God-Man is a great step in placing ourselves in the story of Salvation.
Make a Jesse Tree, uncover old family traditions or make your own. The logic and beauty of faith grows from these soils. We must remember that we are catechised by word and deeds. Reclaim faith-filled deeds and practices in this great season of Advent.
Kyle Herrington is a writer from Kansas City, Missouri