Advent banners in the rich purple color of royalty announce the season’s embrace of peace, love, joy and hope at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church.
These 5-foot long banners usually hang in the sanctuary of the parish. But this year, the Okolona church parishioners will see them grace the concrete-block walls of the parish gym.
The gym has served as a sanctuary for the last seven months since COVID-19 made it necessary for worshippers to spread out for health and safety.
Last Saturday, members of the parish’s Art and Environment Committee were busy transforming the space for the second week of Advent. With dowel rods and clear fishing line, volunteers hung the Advent banners against the stark white gym walls.
Patty Hemmelgarn, the parish secretary, said that while she’d prefer to host Advent and Christmas liturgies in the church, she is happy to be able to attend Mass, wherever that may be.
“Even though it’s in a gym, people are happy they are able to celebrate with their fellow parishioners,” she said. “To be able to come together, they get a lot from that.”
For Christmas liturgies, the parish asks parishioners to call the office or fill out a form online indicating which Mass they’d prefer to attend. Hemmelgarn said this is a way for the parish to plan for the expected turnout and ensure worshippers can be properly distanced.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said that while Christmas liturgies will look different this year, they are no less holy. He also reiterated that the obligation to attend Mass has been lifted and urged those who are vulnerable to stay home.
“I would encourage everyone to creatively find a way to participate in the life of the church for Advent and Christmas,” he said in an interview last week.
For some, he said, that means refraining from attending a Christmas liturgy because they are vulnerable. For others, who can participate in a safe way, following the proper social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines is necessary.
He encouraged all of the faithful to persist with hope, not despair in the season of waiting.
“I would resist the idea that can come to us — a sense of despair because we are in uncharted areas,” he said. “Rather, see it as an adventure of hope. Christ never outdoes himself providing hope for all of us, even in difficult circumstances.”
Dr. Karen Shadle, director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship, said today’s culture provides the temptation to assume Christmas worship will be less special this year or, even worse, that it cannot take place because of the pandemic.
To be clear, Shadle said, Christmas is not cancelled this year. Rather, we are invited to look beyond the surface trappings of the holiday and explore the true meaning of the season. Instead of being consumed with the planning of holiday parties, the stress of school plays and the endless material distractions, focus instead on time with family and quiet reflection.
“We often hear ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’ We hear it every year, to the point it becomes trite. This year, we’ve been forced to reevaluate the meaning of Christmas. In some ways, I’m taking a positive view of that. Christmas is going to mean something real this year, you almost can’t avoid it,” Shadle said.
While Christmas liturgies won’t include full choirs, children’s nativity plays or packed sanctuaries for Midnight Mass, the Christ child will still be born.
“I hope the simple joy shines through. It will not be as loud or elaborate as it usually is, but that doesn’t make it worse,” she said.
After all, the scene of Christ’s birth was not elaborate or filled with trumpet song. Mary and Joseph sought refuge in a stable and baby Jesus was born where farm animals graze.
The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree recently allowing priests to celebrate up to four Masses on Christmas Eve and four on Christmas Day. These additional Masses will accommodate more people while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Archbishop Kurtz also issued a directive allowing vigil Masses on Christmas Eve to be celebrated as early as 2 p.m.
Because of health and safety guidelines limiting church capacity, many parishes have started a reservation system for those who plan to attend liturgies. Contact the parish you plan to attend for more information about their health and safety protocols prior to Christmas.
Parishes around the archdiocese also continue to offer streamed Masses online. A list of those Masses is available at https://www.archlou.org/covid-19/.
The Vatican’s Christmas Masses celebrated by Pope Francis will be aired on the Faith Channel, Spectrum Cable channels 19 and 279, Dec. 24 at 3:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The Holy Father will also deliver the Urbi Et Orbi message Dec. 25 at 6 a.m. Times are Eastern Daylight Savings.
To learn more specific plans for Christmas liturgies, visit your parish’s website or Facebook page. Also, visit www.archlou.org/christmas-2020/ for a listing of Advent programming and Christmas liturgies.