SAN DIEGO — Social distancing measures and bans on large gatherings make it unlikely that people will be spending the weeks before Christmas in crowded shopping malls, at friends’ parties, or at the sort of holiday events that tend to fill their calendars at this time of year.
But, for Catholics, there may be a silver lining to this: While 2020 has taken a lot from us, it seems to have provided an opportunity to rediscover the spirit of Advent, the four-week period of joyful expectation and preparation that precedes Christmas. This year, Advent begins during the Nov. 28-29 weekend and concludes on Dec. 24.
In a typical year, Advent is often eclipsed by the pressure to get a jumpstart on the Christmas festivities. Decorations go up, carols start playing on the radio, and a frantic quest to buy the best Christmas gifts for loved ones begins, practically before Thanksgiving left-overs have even gotten cold.
Gerardo Rojas, director of the Diocesan Institute, said consumerism and a focus on material goods can not only “take away the sense of joy, and hope, and peace that the birth of Christ is tied to, but it does the opposite,” making our lives more stressful and hectic.
But because of the pandemic, he said, “We’re not going to be able to do the things that we were used to doing, and that might be a good thing.”
Patrick Rivera, director of the diocesan Office for Young Adult Ministry, can see how COVID-19 might give Catholics a different perspective on Advent. Already, the pandemic has “slowed us down so much” and “allowed us to become more reflective and more appreciative of the simple things in life.”
With many people experiencing financial difficulties because of the lockdowns, he said, this might be “less of a purchasing year for some people.”
“It allows us to once again recognize that God is offering Himself to us,” Rivera said, “and I think the pandemic will allow us to see that a little more clearly.”
Like Lent before Easter, Advent is a season of preparation. Despite their similarities, including the fact that priests wear purple vestments during both seasons, Advent and Lent are markedly different in tone. Advent is observed as a time of joyful expectation in contrast to the more sacrificial quality of Lent.
While Catholics seem to have a good grasp of how to celebrate Lent, like giving up chocolate and participating in devotions like the Stations of the Cross, they seem far less clear about what it means to do Advent well.
Noreen McInnes, director of the diocesan Office for Liturgy and Spirituality, said this is despite Advent having a host of rich traditions, including Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, and Nativity scenes.
Because different cultures celebrate it differently, it’s hard to say of one particular approach “this is the right way to do” Advent, Rojas said. What’s most important, he said, is “to focus our attention and our hearts on the coming of Christ.”
Among other things, he urges Catholics to go to Mass and to confession if they are able to do so, and to “find something to do at home with your family. It doesn’t have to be a crazy, elaborate thing,” but perhaps simply a prayer that can be recited together daily or weekly.
John Prust, director of the diocesan Office for Family Life and Spirituality, and Associate Director Ricardo Márquez recommend finding ways to get away from the “noise” that inundates the period surrounding Christmas.
Márquez describes Advent as a time to “go to the silent place” where you can hear God’s voice.
Prust suggests that one way to rediscover Advent might be for families to find ways to better celebrate the entirety of the Christmas season, which lasts from Christmas Day until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (celebrated in 2021 on Jan. 10), thereby freeing up Advent to be something other than simply an early Christmas celebration.
But, he said, “I don’t think people need to throw out the baby with the bathwater and toss out all their (Christmas-themed) rituals during the Advent season.”
Rather, he recommends simply trying to infuse more of an Advent mentality into their current traditions. For example, families that like to put up their Christmas trees shortly after Thanksgiving could consider adopting the tradition of the Jesse Tree, adding one ornament each week that symbolizes some-thing from the Old Testament that prefigured the coming of Christ.
McInnes encourages Catholics to “be intentional about our Advent rituals.”
“Placing an Advent wreath in the center of our dinner table symbolizes placing Christ in the center of our family,” McInnes said, offering an example. “Lighting the successive candles each week is not just marking time but symbolizing Christ, our light, who shines brighter as we draw closer to Him, dispelling the darkness.”
She also recommended making time for family prayer, including the rosary, as a way of embracing the spirit of the season and preparing oneself to receive Jesus and to bring Him to others.
Meanwhile, Rivera recommends a practice that has served him well in his own spiritual life: reflecting on the Mass readings. He suggested that Catholics either join an Advent Bible study or reflect on the readings on their own every day or a few times each week.
He said perhaps the best thing that we could say by the close of Advent is that we were able to “live in the moment,” even if that was for as little as 10 to 30 minutes each day.
Maria Olivia “Marioly” Galván, chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego, expressed hope that Catholic families might make Advent a time “to be present” to one another.
“That’s the best ‘present’ that they can give,” she said, intending the pun.
But in addition to prayer, Galván suggests that Catholics look for ways to put their faith into action this Advent. This might include preparing care packages for families that are struggling to make ends meet, or looking for ways to help your parish.
“The opportunity to really live out our faith in concrete ways is also a wonderful way to live our Advent,” she said.
A good example is the annual ministry that Patrick Rivera and his family lead every November at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Lakeside.
The Rivera family oversees the assembly and distribution of Thanksgiving food baskets for almost 100 local families in need. Each basket contains everything required to prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner, including a frozen turkey.
“When we took over the Thanksgiving basket drive at OLPH,” Rivera recalled, “we found that our children enjoyed the outreach tremendously to the point that they ask us when we will begin the baskets. … Our children have a tangible way to give back and serve, and it is a way for them to see that we are all in this together, and that Christ’s coming calls us to be the hope that enlightens.”
McInnes noted that Advent is not only about a past event — the anticipation of Christ’s birth 2,000 years ago — but also about a future one: His second coming. The latter generates thoughts about the end times and about our own mortality.
She suggested that the pandemic also reminds us of our mortality and that of our loved ones, perhaps inspiring us to “treasure our relationships more” this Advent.