The Advent season has always been a time of preparation and joyful waiting for the coming of Christ. But with 2020 being such a different year, how can we adequately prepare for Christmas? What does hope look like in a time when things seem so hopeless? I spoke with Fr. Mark McGuckin, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Port Moody, on this very topic. While we typically associate Advent with great joy and cheer – and we should – we can also use this time of COVID to remind us that hope is indeed possible in times of suffering and great struggle.
RW: Advent is typically a time of preparation for Christmas, and by now, I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to look a lot different from what we’re used to! For you as a pastor, how have you had to shift your own thinking and preparation for Advent this year?
FM: It’s been a lot of mixed emotions around the lockdown and not being able to have public worship. Archbishop Michael spoke of this ‘Eucharistic fast’ that we're entering into in this season of Advent. It reminds me of the shared colour of violet that we share with Lent! It’s a real Lenten feel right now, like a real desert experience. At the same time, here we are entering into our season of hope. I think it’s so appropriate during this time for us to ask ourselves if we sense that the Lord is present in our lives while we journey towards Christmas – Our Lord who is the source of our hope. And as Christians, we get to be agents of our Lord’s hope in the world - extending His love, mercy, and hope. It’s both a daunting responsibility and part of this beautiful adventure that we get to first receive the Lord’s love and peace and hope and then transmit it to others.
RW: Here in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, we came into another ‘lockdown’ just as Advent was starting. What was that like, to begin the new liturgical year with even fewer people in the pews?
FM: I want to roll the clock back to the conclusion of Lent into Palm Sunday of this past year when the first real lockdown was. I think that was maybe the fourth week of Lent, and it came swiftly. No one expected it, and I remember it was just me celebrating a Sunday Mass alone in a church. It was a huge shock to the system! Now, as we journey into this time of Advent with this second lockdown, the shock isn’t there for me anymore. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve gone through this once.” It’s still difficult, but we’re finding ways to show that church is still happening. The future is bright and hope-filled but living in the moment as we are now in the trenches, it’s hard to see and we can feel that weight on our hearts. But I want to reiterate that God is with us, offering Himself to us, and inviting us to draw from his strength.
RW: Every Advent, we hear the same Gospel stories about the birth of Jesus. In light of the current situation, have you seen these stories in a new way?
FM: With the Gospel scenes of our Lord, there is the beautiful new child entering the world. But in that, there’s the shadow of the cross that looms. Jesus comes into the world for a distinct purpose that is much greater than just having a nice manger scene in Bethlehem. He comes for the salvation of the world and to bring hope to everybody, to break open the gates of heaven and to conquer sin, death, and the power of Satan. So it’s perpetual good news here! There is profound beauty in the reality of the Incarnation. The Lord came down – the word becoming flesh, dwelling among us – not leaving us to wallow in the mire, but entering into the swamp of humanity and then breathing life there and raising. There is a downward move to be with us and then He lifts us up.
I love adventure, and these stories we hear about Jesus’ birth are filled with adventure! You have the Holy Family, Mary pregnant with Jesus and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Right away, they’re rejected. There’s no room at the inn. So Joseph needs to take the reins and finds this manger, and our Lord is born among shepherds and animals. And soon after Jesus is born, almost immediately it’s “Nope, we’re not going back to Nazareth.” There’s a bounty on the head of this child, so then they’re off to Egypt; the adventure continues. All of this that I recounted – Mary’s yes, Joseph’s yes, the shepherds and the Magi – they all say “yes” to encounter our Lord and to embrace the journey that He has for them all.
So here we are, living in 2020. No one could have scripted this! The hardships and challenges are manifold. Is it a great adventure? Absolutely it is. How did Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi respond? Was it easy for them to say “I trust in you?” It was probably very difficult. And, through their example, we are encouraged to refresh our trust in our Lord no matter what we’re faced with. When we deliberately invite our Lord into our lives and take hold of that adventure, we get to really thrive and to savour that tremendous privilege of being agents of hope to others. This is the greatest part of being called Christians: to be an extension of Jesus Christ Himself.
RW: You made that connection between the season of Lent and Advent earlier. How can we apply the Lenten feel to our current time of Advent as we journey to Christmas?
FM: As we speak about that Lenten feel, that real sacrificial feel that we’ve seen, I do find that comparison helpful. When I was at the seminary, one of my mentors Fr. Peter Nygren said that the best way to start Lent is to start early. I think it’s their [the Benedictine monks’] favourite season. There’s something about the Lenten season, the disciplined life and savouring the goodness of what God has for us. Through offering things up, taking that extra time for prayer, even ascetical disciplines, there’s a real joy, a palpable joy, that is counterintuitive. It’s a counter-cultural avenue toward joyous living and faith-filled discipleship – something you wouldn’t necessarily associate with these disciplines and practices on the surface.
That’s something that we’re experiencing now. There is a Lenten quality to this Advent journey that we’re on. And I was looking ahead, I saw that Lent in 2021 starts early, it starts in February I believe. So that stuck with me, Fr. Peter’s saying. So okay, this is what we’re faced with. Does it rob us of a fruitful experience? No! It’s actually joy-filled, and that’s because the walk of our Lord up Mount Calvary wasn’t a begrudging walk. Yes, it was painful, sacrificial, and brutal, but at the heart of it was beautiful joy, because a redemptive mission is happening. Jesus made a gift of Himself that will forever bear fruit. So I think there’s an opportunity here for us to say, “Lord, I walk with you. I feel the sorrow, I feel this longing and dryness, but I draw closer.”
RW: As we continue to prepare our hearts for Jesus in light of this different Christmas, what encouragement do you have for us to live out our Advent and prepare for Jesus’ coming well?
FM: Yeah, it can be easy to look to the horizon and say that this Christmas won’t be as good as last Christmas. But I think our Lord is guiding us into something beautiful, if we have the eyes of faith to see it. The Lord calls us to be with Him, just to walk with Him and rest with Him. The Lord wants to be intimately involved in all parts of our life. All the while, the Lord is doing His work. He’s building His kingdom in ways that we can’t forecast. When we choose to say “yes” to Him, when we seek out the support of others and aim to be a support for other people, we can see the ways He’s guiding us. And I know it’s going to be something beautiful.