“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), painted about 1622, housed at the Pomerianian State Museum, Germany. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN


During Advent we await Jesus as Emmanuel, Light of the World

Calendar year 2020 might seem an endless period of struggle, with the deadly and worrisome coronavirus pandemic, months of civil unrest and a tumultuous presidential election in the United States.

But the Church is about to embark on a new liturgical year, filled with the expectant hope of the Advent season, beginning Nov. 29 and ending on Christmas Eve.

During Advent, Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus, who is both the Light of the World and Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Two clergy members serving in the archdiocese reflect on those titles of Jesus, especially considering how he manifests himself during current troubles, and how to best prepare for him during Advent.

Late in December, as Christmas draws close, the Church will pray to Jesus as one who is light and as one who is near us when its members pray the traditional “O Antiphons”– recalling “O Radiant Dawn” and “O Emmanuel.”

The faithful eagerly and prayerfully await the Lord’s coming.

In the Incarnation, Jesus chose to be one with us

When Jesus came into the world, he became human.

That’s a point Father Brian Welter doesn’t take lightly.

“This is monumental. It’s pivotal.” said the executive director of the Institute for Priestly Formation at the Creighton University campus in Omaha, who assumed that position in July.

“God sent his son Jesus to become like us in all things except sin,” Father Welter said. “So he understands our condition. … I can relate and share everything that’s going on in my life with him.” He is someone who “always will be with me.”

Christ’s closeness, his nearness to those he came to save, is something to ponder and rejoice in during Advent, he said.

Christ truly is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

“He knows what it means to be human, and he knows the joys and the struggles and the sin and the sickness,” said Father Welter, who came to Omaha from the Archdiocese of Chicago and served as vice rector of formation at the nearby Mundelein Seminary.

Jesus’ coming is celebrated in two ways during Advent: the historical event that happened more than 2,000 years ago and the awaiting of his coming at the end of time, he said.

Christians today “know the Lord was born into our world and that he lived our life and he died our death,” Father Welter said. “But then he rose to new life on the third day. And the mission for all of us is the mission of the Church: to present Christ alive to the world.”
“We ourselves have to be continually rooted in that faith, convinced of it deep in our bones, that the Lord is alive, that Jesus is alive, that we’re part of this mission to proclaim the Good News.”

Witnessing the faith often happens individually, person to person, and mostly involves love of God and love of neighbor, Father Welter said.

And love of God starts with prayer, he said.

“Sometimes we can be our own worst critics” and think “I’m not sure if I really love the Lord that much,” Father Welter said. “Well, I would say let’s pause on that and say ‘God, allow me to be the loving person you want me to be.’”

God then transforms people through daily prayer, going to Mass and receiving the sacraments, he said.

Love of neighbor involves “the way we treat others: family, friends and then the larger community,” Father Welter said. “But for my money, the love of neighbor starts very locally, to the person to whom I come across on a day-to-day basis.”

Human connections are important, he said. Even if people have to be physically separated because of coronavirus concerns, just the thought of family and friends, and their importance, can be consoling.

He said that when a person’s name or a memory pops in his head, he tries to call or reach out to that person. “Perhaps God put the thought into my mind or heart to do that. … It’s a loving thing to do and something we could do during Advent. That kind of thing lifts us up.”

Relationships with others and an encounter with God are important during Advent and were part of the Christmas story that included Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men.

After people encounter him, “they’re affected by the birth of Jesus. And we like to imagine they go home changed,” Father Welter said.

There’s a deep desire, a yearning in everyone, like the wisemen, to follow the rising star, he said. That desire is for a greater relationship with God and a greater love for people.

“And maybe every year at Advent, we just reconnect with that deep desire. And we imagine ourselves there at the manger, adoring the Lord,” Father Welter said.

“And if we allow ourselves to go there, then we’re changed little by little every year, and we go home, so to speak, in a new way, revivified by the encounter with Christ during the Christmas season. And Advent is that preparation period.”

Jesus comes as a light in the darkness

The world can seem dark at times, but Jesus Christ entered into humanity as “the light that shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5).

This Advent, many would welcome a light in the darkness, particularly those suffering because of COVID-19.

Jesus “still comes in the darkness of the world that we’re in, if we open our hearts to him,” said Deacon Norm Tierney, manager of ministry for Catholic Cemeteries, who also serves at St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha.

“And even if we don’t know it, if we don’t feel it, he’s there,” he said.

“We need to realize that he has been with us through this time and he will carry us through it all the way,” he said. “So we can look forward to the Advent season and remember that he came for us in the darkness, and he continues to come for us in the darkness of the things that happen in our lives.”

In his ministry at Catholic Cemeteries, Deacon Tierney said, “I meet people every day who have just suffered a huge loss. And sometimes it doesn’t seem like anything good can come from that for them. But I’ve had people who have, through the death of a loved one, decided to come back into the Church. They realize they need God in their lives.

“And so he’s with us, he’s walking them through that darkness of that loss and bringing them to the light. He can make good from anything if we’re open to it.”

Advent is a time to bring Christ’s light to others, said Deacon Tierney, who converted to Catholicism 37 years ago, was ordained in 2015 and also serves as a spiritual director.

“Through our baptism we’ve received the light of Christ in us, and we’re called to share that and spread it,” he said. “What we’ve received we’re called to give. And the only way to do that is to be prepared.”

One of the best ways to prepare during Advent is through the sacrament of reconciliation, the deacon said, “so that we can approach him in prayer from a position of purity.”

Reconciliation brings revitalization, he said. “We walk out of there (confession) fresh and clean and ready to go forward, knowing that we’re right with God.”

In prayer, people can thank God for blessings, petition him – perhaps for a more intimate relationship with him – but also to “let him speak to us, to see where he’s leading us and be open to wherever he leads us,” Deacon Tierney said.

St. Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart, a Discalced Carmelite nun who lived from 1747 to 1770, prayed to become “a perfect copy” of Jesus. Her prayer could become an Advent prayer, Deacon Tierney said, to become the light of Jesus, a light that’s lived out and shared with others.

People might not see an immediate change, “but as we progress and we make that time to pray more frequently, (the light) grows and grows over a period of time,” he said. “Advent is such a perfect time to start that process” (of prayer). “And when we do it for a while, it becomes a habit.

“It doesn’t come easy at first,” he said, “but then it becomes a true part of your life where you hate to miss it.”

Designating a place at home for daily prayer can be helpful, Deacon Tierney said. “It doesn’t have to be a room. It can be part of a room, or in a corner … where you can separate yourself.”

Even small efforts can be fruitful, he said.

“It can be just getting up a little earlier in the morning and praying a few minutes in the quiet of your house,” Deacon Tierney said.

“It doesn’t have to be spending hours in prayer, and you don’t have to be a theologian. You can just be who you are with God. … Talk to him as your friend in that prayer time, have a conversation with him and then sit silently for a few minutes.”

“Start small, and let (the light of Jesus) grow on its own.”

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