In Scripture, the Psalmist describes how he "wait(s) for the Lord … in his word do I hope" (Psalms 130:5), a timely reminder for Christians as they prepare to celebrate the Christmas season.
"We want to secularize it, but there's always a difficulty with secularizing events because we lose the foundation of meaning," said Father Mark Kusmirek of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Jacksonville.
"The secular reality is wonderful, but it's not all there is in the world. (Through the) Incarnation – the birth of Christ – God becoming flesh is a beautiful expression of how he becomes like us in all things except sin," the priest said. "In other parts of the world, they're not focusing on four weeks of a buying marathon, but four weeks to consider what's part of their lives, that it is God who is the center. Advent allows us four weeks of silent preparation."
"Advent," from the Latin term ad venio, is "a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ's second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord's birth," according to the United States Confer-ence of Catholic Bishops.
Christians who observe Advent focus on special devotions like lighting candles on an Advent wreath, or counting down the days until Christmas using an Advent calendar.
During the four Sundays of Advent at Jacksonville's First United Methodist Church, members of the congregation take turns each week lighting candles on the Advent wreath and doing the readings for the service, said church secretary Ann Culotta.
"People enjoy it because that's been our tradition for years, and they look forward to it as part of the Advent season," she said. "It just reminds us of the reason why we celebrate Christ-mas – not for commercialism or gift-giving, but because that's when Jesus was born."
Church members are invited to share personal written devotions based on a particular theme, which are then published for use as a daily devotion, Culotta said. "We started doing that 10 or 15 years ago, and I think everyone really enjoys it because it's a way to share personally during the Christ-mas and Advent seasons," she said.
As pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Vernon Lee said he tries to encourage others to keep their focus on the true meaning of Christmas.
"For the entire month of December, we host programs and celebrations that are all intended to keep bringing us back from out of the world and into the spiritual celebration" of the season, he said.
At Our Lady of Sorrows, parishioners will host las posadas, an eight-day Mexican tradition that reenacts the Holy Couple's search for shelter. They also plan to do a live Nativity scene in mid-December, a tradition founded centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi "to make literally Script-ure come alive for people," Father Mark said.
However, one may make their spiritual journey more personal through prayer and giving of self, they said.
"One of the best ways for someone to get into the spirit is to consider ways of giving to others," Lee said. "Anytime you focus on giving to others, instead of expecting to receive, is a good means of helping us keep things in proper perspective. It's a wonderful way to give the gift of self."
For those who want to develop a tradition of daily devotions, material is available online, in bookstores and at churches, Culotta said.
"It really helps you to focus daily on the real reason of the season," she said.
Then there's the simplest way of all: Offering up others in prayer.
"As Catholics, w have the practice of offering spiritual bouquets for people," he said.
"In this way, we offer prayers for others as a gift, saying 'I'll pray for you,' or 'I'll read two books of the Bible or the Gospel of Luke in your honor,'" he said.