Wry jokes and memes about the decided awfulness of the year 2020 - with the pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and economic distress, as well as civil unrest in a turbulent election year - are well known to just about anyone on social media.
Now, Christians find themselves entering into Advent, a season that is supposed to be one of joyful preparation for the celebration of Christmas, as well as preparation for the eventual Second Coming of Christ.
Much like Easter 2020, which landed almost exactly one month after the country shut down in March, this Advent and Christmas season will likely look quite different than normal. With coronavirus cases resurging in many parts of the country, access to the sacraments and Mass may be restricted or blocked, and family plans and other seasonal events canceled.
CNA talked to several Catholics about how to still enter into this Advent season, and live it well, from home.
“What I love most is that Advent is designed to shake us; to wake us up to the extraordinariness of the ordinary,” Fr. Ryan Kaup, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. “God became man, but then the next day, Mary had to change diapers and shortly after flee for their lives.”
Kaup said his favorite book for the Advent season is “Advent of the Heart”, a collection of reflections written by Fr. Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II and eventually killed for his work with the resistance.
The reflections, written by someone experiencing intense suffering, can prompt Catholics today to think about how God may be trying to shake them during these unprecedented times, Kaup noted.
“One of my favorite quotes from Advent of the Heart is: ‘Perhaps what we modern people need most is to be genuinely shaken...So now, God lets the earth resound, and now He shudders it, and then He shakes it, not to call forth a false anxiety…he does it to teach us one thing again: how to be moved in spirit. Much of what is happening today would not be happening if people were in that state of inner movement and restlessness of heart in which man comes into the presence of God the Lord and gains a clear view of things as they really are.’”
Kaup said this quote can be a good starting point of reflection for Catholic families and individuals for Advent.
“Where is God shaking me in my life? Where is He calling my family to refocus on the profound simplicity of the ordinary?” he said.
The Gospel reading on the Sunday before the start of Advent this year is about the corporal works of mercy, Kaup added, which can be a different way to use the tradition of the Advent calendar, by “thinking of one corporal work of mercy that you can perform each day, as an individual or as a family.”
The Sunday before Advent is also celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, Kaup noted, which invites Catholics to see that “as the things we have placed our hope and security in, these goods that can become idols in our lives, fall by the wayside, we recognize that the only sure foundation in our lives is Jesus Christ. His Kingdom of power, love and peace is where we can live at all times - recognizing that living in his kingdom means we are free from the greatest evil, sin itself.”
“I don’t pretend to completely know the mind of God, but maybe, in part, that’s what He’s telling us: you may be suffering from many things, but you can be free from the power of sin through the incarnation. Do we recognize the greatness of that gift?” he said.
Sr. Katherine Marie Chiara McCloskey, HMSS, said she has been meditating on the image of the Holy Family as Advent approaches.
“With all the uncertainty and the craziness in the world right now, I think a lot of us need comfort and nurturing right now,” she said. “And so you can go to Mary and Joseph and let them be mom and dad to you...if I'm having a day where I'm just really not okay, I’m going to let Mary and Joseph take care of me.”
While Advent and Christmas are joyful liturgical seasons, she added, that doesn’t mean that Catholics should ignore any suffering they are experiencing.
“You have to feel your feelings. The worst thing you can do is suppress them. Jesus wants authenticity, he wants to know how you're really doing. I think about the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem - that wasn't easy. God really wants us to tell him how we're really doing,” she said.
McCloskey said that it is also important to have a place prepared for prayer, especially if Masses are restricted or canceled.
“Create a place (for prayer) wherever you're living, whether it's a house or apartment...or for some people like myself, I like to be outside,” she said.
Sr. Kathryne of the Holy Trinity Lopez, HMSS, said that she would encourage Catholics to select one priest or ministry that speaks to them and follow their Advent homilies or reflections.
“I recommend only choosing one to avoid information overload,” she said.
Lopez added that Advent during a pandemic can help Catholics evaluate what they are really waiting for.
“St. Bernard of Clairvaux talks about this third coming of Christ - his coming into our daily lives. And so I really want to challenge us to have a deeper Advent season,” she said. “What are we waiting for? Are we just waiting to get out of quarantine, waiting to just be ‘free again,’ to go back to what we knew, or are we waiting for (Christ) to come, are we preparing for him?”
On their website this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has compiled numerous resources that Catholics can use for Advent at home, including prayers, saint biographies, and activities, as well as social media posts and bulletin inserts for parishes.
Allison Rubio, the marketing and content coordinator for the USCCB, said she and her team hoped that the resources would be a source of hope and connection for people during this pandemic Advent season.
“We've been thinking a lot about Easter, which was very different. So with this pandemic continuing into the Advent season, how do we ensure that the faithful are still being reached? And how do we help parishes who have maybe cut down on staff or are working remotely and they don't have that collaboration that they're used to?” she said.
The resources include more traditional things, like an Advent calendar and a blessing for the family Nativity scene. It also includes ideas for new traditions, like creating a Gift of Hope Tree, in which a family thinks about what kinds of gifts Jesus’ family may have needed, as a poor family with a new baby. Those gifts are then placed on the tree, and then donated to Catholic Relief Services for families in need.
“I hope that people find them very useful and that they can bring some sense of community to their Advent season this year,” Rubio said.
Dr. Jared Staudt serves as the director of formation for the Archdiocese of Denver’s offices of evangelization and Catholic Schools, and is a husband and father of six children. Staudt told CNA there are many ways that Catholics can prepare at home for the coming of Christ.
“Advent is a time to trace the story of salvation history so that the coming of Jesus makes sense as the culmination of a long preparation,” he said.
One way to learn more about salvation history is by creating a Jesse Tree, which traces the coming of Jesus through the old testament, he said, and children can help make the ornaments for the tree in order to engage their imaginations. Reading the book of the Prophet Isaiah can also be a helpful way to see the different ways Jesus’ coming was prophesied, he added.
Sacrifices can also be offered during Advent, as it is also a penitential season, Staudt noted.
There are also several feast days throughout the season that Catholics can celebrate, Staudt said, including the Immaculate Conception and feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“On December 13, we celebrate a saint of light, St. Lucy. It’s a day of candles and crowns, wearing white and red for her purity and martyrdom, and for special food, such as St. Lucy buns. Advent is also a time to reclaim Santa Claus, who arose from the traditions surrounding the gift-giving St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6. He is the patron saint of children for providing a dowry for three destitute young girls, dropping gold down their chimney. Traditionally boys would dress up like bishops and there’d be a procession of the saint (laying the foundation for today’s parades). Putting out their shoes for a gift from their patron saint will brighten up Advent for our kids,” he said.
He added that while it’s tempting to start listening to Christmas music, there are many Advent hymns and carols that can help prepare Catholics for Christmas.
“In England, it’s traditional to have lessons and carols, and it’s also popular to listen to Handel’s Messiah (as the first of its three parts focuses on the coming of Christ). There are a lot of great Advent albums, but I would recommend Advent at Ephesus from the Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles,” he said.
Fr. Edward Looney, a priest in Door County, Wisconsin, told CNA that he would encourage Catholics to take advantage of the ways social media can connect them to Advent resources they may not have had access to otherwise, such as online talks and retreats.
Looney said he recommended an online advent pilgrimage with Parousia Media in Australia, as well as an online three-day Marian retreat starting on Sunday, Nov. 29, with Father Joel Laramie from the World Apostleship of Prayer. The retreat is being recorded and will be available all Advent. For reading, Looney recommended Oriens: A Pilgrimage through Advent and Christmas by Fr. Joel Sember.
Looney added that Catholics who are feeling discouraged by this year can meditate on the message of Advent which is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
“Whatever it is that we’re going through during this Advent season, we want to prepare for Christmas. We don't want to ignore it because then, what spiritual benefit is that to us, if we just ignore it? So we want to engage the season, and it's a unique year unto itself,” he said.
“God is with us, so we can't forget that. We can't forget that God is with us right now in this moment and He hasn't abandoned us. That He's with us in our suffering, He's with us in our pain and everything. And if that means right now, I'm lonely, I'm sad, I'm angry - whatever it is, acknowledge that God is with you right now.”