Christmas, Advent a ‘celebration of life’ in a dark year, local Catholics say

Students at St. Patrick School in Carleton participate in a “living Nativity” display Dec. 12 outside St. Patrick Parish. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, parishes and individuals are finding more time to focus on Christ during Advent as the coronavirus limits the usual social gatherings, shopping and hustle and bustle. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

With fewer parties and obligations, individuals find more time for prayer, parishes place more focus on the reason for the season: Jesus

CARLETON  Christ’s birth is a light in the darkness. And in a year of much darkness, his light has never shown brighter. 

Advent has a different look this year, as families gather — safely — around the table, mask up to take a stroll through a “living Nativity” display or hop on Zoom or Skype for a chat with family members miles away.

Limits on social gatherings, an economic slowdown and precautions to halt the spread of the coronavirus have undoubtedly changed the look and feel of the season, but for some Detroit-area Catholics, it’s left more room for what truly matters.

“We had families singing ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ to close up a night where we had all the lights on outside and gathered by the Nativity out front; it was really special,” Beth Spizarny, director of evangelization and faith formation at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, told Detroit Catholic

Shrine used its large church to host a socially spaced Advent Night of Reflection on Dec. 2, as well as its first-ever “Light up Shrine” event on the basilica grounds Dec. 5 that included music, testimonies and a candlelight procession around the campus. 

“On Dec. 16, we’re going to have a night of Eucharistic adoration that will be streamed online for those more comfortable with that,” Spizarny said. “As a parish, we’ve been praying for an increase in joy this Advent.” 

An “angelic” choir sings Christmas carols outside Divine Grace Parish in Carleton as part of the parish and St. Patrick School’s “living Nativity” display Dec. 12. 

Parishioners will be able to go up to the monstrance and light a candle for their prayer intentions, or, if they choose to watch online, leave a comment on the live feed, and a parish staffer will leave a candle on their behalf. 

“A lot of people said it was so hopeful to see the candles to remember Christ is the light in the darkness,” Spizarny said. “We talked at the end about how many of our neighbors and friends are living the same dark times we are, but they don’t have the light of Christ. We can be that light, maybe by putting up Christmas lights or checking in to see how a neighbor is doing.” 

Mark Nemecek, a member of SS. Peter and Paul (Westside) Parish in Detroit, said his December is normally packed with small and large social events and parties, but with a lighter calendar, he’s had more time for prayer. 

“Generally, there are a lot of parties in the Christmas season,” Nemecek said, “not only with family, but with friends, church groups, parishes — they all have some kind of celebration during the Christmas season that’s not happening now, so that’s a big adjustment.” 

Instead, attending the candlelit Rorate Masses around the archdiocese — a liturgy honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent — has been a special blessing for Nemecek. 

Mark Nemecek serves Mass at SS. Peter and Paul (Westside) Parish in Detroit. Nemecek, whose Advent is usually packed with obligations, parties and gatherings, said he’s focusing more on private prayer and devotions this year. 

“Thankfully, we’re still having public Masses now,” Nemecek said. “Very often you can still see other people and talk to them afterward. It’s not a full social (event), but just quickly saying ‘Hey, nice to see you. How are you?’ is good for the soul.” 

Normally, Nemecek’s family from Maryland would fly into town for the holidays, but this year’s traditions had to be augmented. The lack of social obligations has given Nemecek more time to read a book about the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine his pastor recommended, as well as to pray a novena to St. Andrew. 

“I’m thankful we still have the public celebrations now, with precautions,” Nemecek said “That has kept me going this Advent.” 

Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, parishes are doing their best to keep some semblance of normal, whether through outdoor caroling in the church parking lot or drive-thru Christmas lights and Nativity displays. 

Many parishes have added Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to accommodate expected larger congregations with limited seating, while some, such as St. Anastasia in Troy, are going a step further, offering virtual “Christmas Mass kits” to help families with children participate in Christmas livestreams. 

Farm animals roam in a makeshift pasture outside Divine Grace Parish in Carleton as volunteers dressed as wise men, shepherds and the Holy Family for a “living Nativity” display Dec. 12.

In Monroe County, Divine Grace Parish and St. Patrick School in Carleton hosted a live Nativity after Mass on Dec. 12, with students guiding visitors through a miniature Bethlehem, complete with live farm animals. 

“We’re out in the country with a lot of property, so we can set up different stations to keep things spaced out,” said Laura Busen, president of the school organizing committee at St. Patrick School. “It’s been amazing to put this on, to have people understand the true meaning of Christmas, especially with all the craziness of 2020.” 

In addition to encouraging mask-wearing and spacing, St. Patrick also used its sports trailer to sell food and hot drinks in an effort to create a family-focused event to celebrate the season. 

Busen said everyone at the parish is taking the virus serious and observing the necessary precautions, but in a year when so much has been taken away, it’s essential to celebrate the blessings, too. 

“It’s very frightening for these kids,” Busen said. “They feel trapped in their homes. They can’t go out, can’t go to the store, can’t see their cousins. We need to be reassuring to them that we are going to go back to some normalcy.

“We do need to celebrate and remember that Jesus is here. He is why we have Christmas,” Busen added. “It’s so much more than gifts and celebrations this year. It’s a celebration of his life. It’s a celebration of life.” 

A “shepherd” and his camel greet passersby outside Divine Grace Parish in Carleton.