Bishops say Advent during pandemic can be a time to draw closer to Jesus

Four lit candles are set in a wreath for Advent. One candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas. This year the first Sunday of Advent is Nov. 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

CLEVELAND — The global pandemic and new limits on daily activities present a special time for a renewal of faith and the opportunity to deepen appreciation for Jesus in daily life, bishops across the country said in messages for the Advent season.

This year as families are separated, several bishops said, Advent also can be a much-needed quiet time to recognize how the birth of an infant, Jesus, changed the world and his followers are invited to follow his example to help bring peace in a tumultuous era.

Likewise, bishops encouraged prayers for essential workers including those in health care, education and often overlooked service sectors as well as for those who died or became ill because of COVID-19 and the family members and friends caring for them.

In a bit of a twist, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, wondered if God was using the effects of the pandemic to achieve good.

"What if we were able to take advantage of this shuttering of our busy lives to observe Advent as our church has always encouraged us to do: a time of reflection, a time of quieting, a time of stillness, to make room for Christ in our daily lives?" he asked in a message posted on the diocesan website.

He invited families to celebrate traditions such as lighting the candles of an Advent wreath at daily dinner, blessing the Christmas tree with prayer, and gathering to reflect in front of a Nativity scene to nurture their faith "as we look forward to the great feast of the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming one of us."

Advent is a time to "experience the loving presence of God in a fresh and profound way," Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix said in a recorded message on "The Bishop's Hour" radio program that aired Nov. 21 on Relevant Radio.

The four-week period leading to Christmas Day can be a time during which God prepares "our heart to receive the beloved Son again," Bishop Olmsted said. "He may do so in little ways that we may hardly notice at the time."

Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, echoed that message in a column in the December issue of Cross Roads, the diocesan magazine, saying that "while Christmas celebrations this year will be different, the event we celebrate remains the same."

"Perhaps it is more meaningful than ever to remember, Emmanuel, God is with us -- he never has and never will abandon us," Bishop Stowe said.

Each Advent is an invitation to "ponder what it is that we still await," he explained. Jesus, he said, "has come and shown us the way."

Despite Jesus' example of unity, the bishop said, "We have not always followed the ways indicated by the Messiah, especially as he demonstrates that we are one family with one Father in heaven."

Bishop Stowe expressed regret that as the "terrible year" of 2020 ends, the times have been "made worse by ever-growing division over so many matters, even as a pandemic should have brought us in to the greater unity needed to survive."

Pope Francis' recent encyclical, "Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship," offers inspiration to overcome divisiveness and "provides a particularly appropriate meditation for this time of watching and waiting," he said.

"The pope knows that this darkness is passing and, as Christ's representative, he is and must be a messenger of hope. Despite the bleakness around, God continues to sow seeds of goodness," he said, crediting the work of those responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bishop also invited the faithful to practice charity during Advent which can open hearts to "greater awareness of the great worth of each human being" on the way to helping light the darkness.

A brief video message from Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of St. Petersburg, Florida, on the diocesan website focused on preparing for celebrating the birth of Jesus. He encouraged the faithful to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

Bishop Parkes invited people to register on the site to receive a series of daily reflections, "Courageously Living the Gospel," being offered by the diocese at Bishop Parkes, the Benedictine Sisters of Florida and the Benedictine monks of St. Leo Abbey will be among those offering the reflections.

Meanwhile, a special Year of the Parish and the Eucharist will open in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, as Advent begins.

Bishop Steven J. Raica said in announcing the observance that chancery offices will publish resources for parishes and other ministries for observing the year. The time is being designated so that the Catholic community is "united in the worship of God,' he said.

"Amid the disorientation, distress and uncertainty, we need to rediscover the value of being together with the Lord, our sure hope," he said in a Nov. 17 statement. "Like the early Christians, we say: 'Sine dominico non possumus' (cf. Martyrs of Abitinae) -- 'We cannot live without the Lord's day.'

"In a time when so many Catholics no longer appreciate the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, as evidenced by recent well-publicized polls and studies, we endeavor to encounter Christ anew in this great gift that he left us, which is celebrated in the Christian assembly," he said.

In Australia, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Umbers of Sydney in an Advent message to children said the birth of an infant, Jesus, changed the world and that everyone is called to celebrate such a special event.

"God is love and he showed us this great love through giving us his son at Christmas," Bishop Umbers wrote. "Jesus is the greatest gift we could ever receive and we get to celebrate this every year when we gather with family and friends in small and big ways at Christmas."

He asked children to recall the best gift they ever received and how the person who gave that gift gave it serious thought, "preparing for it, buying it or making it, wrapping it and delighting, also in seeing you open the gift."

"That is exactly what we are called to do every Advent so that on Christmas Day we can give something special to Jesus, God's son," the bishop said.

"My prayer is that this Christmas we can bring the love of God into our lives," he concluded, "and learn more about this little baby who became our King, our Savior and is the Greatest Love of all."

- - -

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski