Religious education teachers keep Christ in Christmas

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Advent is a busy time of year for Alison Wertzler, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington. Besides all the errands, holiday shopping and do-it-yourself projects that need to get done, Wertzler also serves as a religious education teacher. On Sunday mornings, the hustle and bustle of the week comes to a halt as she walks into Room 210 where more than a dozen energetic first-graders wait to learn the theological intricacies of the faith, like how Baby Jesus and Santa Claus are related.

For volunteers like Wertzler, Advent is a beautiful time to share the spirit of the season with the church's youngest members. It is one of the few times during the week that students who attend public school will experience the faith outside of their homes.

"We are competing with a culture of sales and shopping," said Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy. "Teachers do a good job of keeping Christ in Christmas."

For Wertzler, it is important to help children understand that the weeks leading up to Christmas are a time of preparation. She finds it helpful to introduce activities and crafts.

"First grade is important because it's a foundation year as they grow in their faith," said Wertzler. "We are here to talk about Jesus' birth as opposed to Santa."

New this year is Advent Bingo, which will help them identify the symbols of the season, according to Wertzler.

As the years pass, some of the children's natural interests begin to fade as their attention is drawn toward toys and Christmas commercials that appear well before the first candle is lit on the Advent wreath. Jean Morrow is just as excited as everyone for Christmas but she appreciates the richness of the Advent season and wants to share that with her fourth-graders.

"Our goal is to have them learn about the season before Christmas and how they can be more Christ-like," said Morrow. She hopes the crafts and Advent spiritual reflections will engage the students and plant seeds of faith that will stay with them as they continue on their spiritual journey.

By the time students are confirmed in eighth grade, they are old enough to begin taking on responsibility for their own faith formation.

"It's 'game on,'" said Katie Lundstrom, who has taught eighth-graders for the past five years. In past years, Lundstrom has shown her students the 2006 film "The Nativity Story" as a way for them to connect with the season.

"They really get into it because there is a lot of drama," said Lundstrom. "They understand the sacrifice of Joseph, the slaughter of the holy innocents."

This year Lundstrom is taking a slightly different approach. She is putting the lessons into the hands of the students who will give reports about the features of the liturgical year such as Advent, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Epiphany.

"It came as a result of thinking they were just confirmed a month and a half ago, and it seems good for them to stop listening to someone talk to them and start evangelizing themselves," said Lundstrom. She hopes that the lessons will give them a sense of conviction and help them see the meaning of the liturgical season.

Contact your parish Director of Religious Education for information on volunteering as an aid or teacher.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015