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Advent during a pandemic

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For most of 2020, many of us have echoed the words of the Psalmist: "How long, O Lord? (Ps 13:2) How long must we endure this pandemic and wear face masks? When can we be freed from the impersonal social distancing norms and greet others again with a hug, a handshake or a kiss? From March until May, Catholics in our diocese weren’t able to attend Mass and many longed to receive the Lord again in the Eucharist. Those who had been daily communicants cried: "How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?" (Ps 13:3). Our persistent questioning "when?" and "how long?" during the COVID-19 crisis echoes the same expectant waiting and longing of the season of Advent.

"Advent has a twofold character," according to the Roman Missal, "for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time." Since Advent focuses upon both comings of the Lord, as an infant and as just judge, "Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight." In our homes, families can transform the anxious waiting for the pandemic’s end into a period of joyful expectation for the Lord’s coming.

The Christian family is the domestic church, "the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith…a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity" (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1666), where all the members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized. In the fifth century, St. Augustine taught that the head of the family should "teach, encourage, correct, employ good will, exercise discipline," because the father is like a bishop in his domestic church. "In this way, in his own house he will fulfill in a way a churchly and episcopal function" ("Tractates on John," 51). How then can we embrace the joyful longing of Advent in our domestic churches?

Since, according to the Second Vatican Council, the sacred liturgy is "the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed" and "the font from which all her power flows," the domestic church should model its way of life on that of the church’s liturgy. During Advent, according to the Roman Missal, penitential violet vestments are worn, and the floral decoration of the altar and the use of musical instruments "should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord." Likewise, in the domestic church the family should embrace a spirit of moderation and Christian sobriety during Advent, eschewing the spirit of a secular Christmas that focuses on holiday parties and ugly sweaters, on twinkling lights and elves and candy canes, and on a commercialized St. Nicholas who brings more possessions. It is this worldly spirit that throws out trees and decorations the day after Christmas. As Catholics, Advent is about preparation; the twelve days of Christmas (Dec. 25 until the solemnity of the Epiphany) are for celebration.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we pray for "the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming," and in the Gospel Jesus says, "Be watchful. Be alert." Prepare for Christmas during Advent by family prayer and works of mercy, thinking first of Jesus’ second coming, knowing that as often as we are merciful to the least of his brethren, we are merciful to him. Though families can’t visit the sick and the elderly during the pandemic, they can pray for them and send letters and cards and children’s drawings. Instead of baking Christmas cookies, families can make meals for the sick and shut-ins or new mothers. 

During family prayer time, parents can proclaim the Old Testament prophecies of the Lord’s coming: that a virgin shall bear God-With-Us (Is 7), that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Is 9:2), that the child born for us "will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace" (Is 9:6), that "a star shall come forth out of Jacob (Nm 24:17), and that from Bethlehem "shall come forth for me one … whose origin is from of old" (Mi 5:2).

During this time of anxious waiting and confusion amid a global pandemic, let us redirect our attention to the Lord’s coming, which will help us welcome him with abundant joy at Christmas, for the Psalmist ends his lament of asking "how long?" by singing: "Grant my heart joy in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me" (Ps 13:6).

Wallace is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020