by the Most Reverend John M. Quinn
Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Winona-Rochester
The Christmas trees and lights have all been up for weeks, but as we enter into this month of December, Catholics and many other Christians are celebrating the holy Season of Advent. The four weeks of Advent, starting this year on November 29, are a time of preparation before Christmas. One can always better celebrate and appreciate something if one adequately prepares for it, and Advent provides us with a time of anticipation, the opportunity to ready our hearts and homes so that we can joyfully welcome Christ at Christmas.
If you enter a Catholic church during Advent, you will notice that the holiday decorations, so prevalent elsewhere, are strangely absent. Instead, you will probably see an Advent wreath, usually made up of one pink and three purple candles set in a wreath of evergreens, which marks the Sundays of Advent. There might also be some simple purple decorations and a markedly simple interior with none of the trees, lights, or poinsettias that will come out at Christmas.
Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming to become one of us, to ultimately give His life to free us from our sins. He calls us into relationship with Him, and Advent provides us with a time to focus on the love God has for us, and how we can love Him in return. By doing this, we can prepare our hearts for both Christ’s coming at Christmas, and His coming in glory at the end of time.
Advent is a time of quiet and stillness, when we are invited to focus on our relationship with Christ through prayer and service to others. There are many traditions of the season that help us to do this, including lighting an Advent wreath at home during dinner, times of family prayer, and having an Advent calendar that marks each day of the season. When I was growing up, my parents had my sister, brother, and I put straw in Baby Jesus’ manger each time we did a good deed, with the hope that by Christmas Our Savior would have a soft bed on which to lie. One year our Dad had to remind us that there wasn’t much straw in the manger so the Baby Jesus was going to have a hard bed to lie on, unless we got busy and did some good deeds.
Even though this year we may not be able to practice the same works of charity as in the past, by visiting nursing homes or taking part in large-group service projects, there are still many ways to show care for others, whether it is by sending cards to cheer up the homebound, or making food or care packages for those in need.
With the many struggles we face in our world today, including the ongoing reality of COVID-19 and the changes that will necessarily occur to our normal holiday celebrations, it is important to remember that the season of Advent and Christmas are all about hope. Our world has faced many dark times before, including the First Christmas, when the Holy Family twice fled for their lives and the Romans were occupying the land. Previous generations have lived through times of war, the 1918 flu pandemic, and the Great Depression. However, our faith in Christ gives us hope that not only has Christ won the ultimate victory over sin and death, but that He is always with us to strengthen and sustain us. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8).
The Birth of Christ, which we look forward to later this month shows us that Christ loves us so much that God took on human flesh and redeemed us by His death. He is with us even amidst the darkest days, and invites us to turn to Him and experience His love and presence in our lives. During this Advent season, I pray that we all may take the opportunity to turn to the Lord in prayer, and perhaps see in a new way how He is at work in our lives and is calling us to bring His light to others this Christmas. Blessed are you!