Reflections on Advent, Christmas invite passers-by to encounter Christ in new ways

December 3, 2020 at 5:39 p.m.
Reflections on Advent, Christmas invite passers-by to encounter Christ in new ways
Reflections on Advent, Christmas invite passers-by to encounter Christ in new ways

EmmaLee Italia, Contributing Editor, and Jennifer Mauro, Managing Editor

Knowing that the holidays during COVID-19 will necessitate distance and perhaps even remote means of spiritual connection, parishes have found new ways to bring Advent and Christmas to the community.

Such is the case for The Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley parishes of St. Alphonsus, Hopewell; St. George, Titusville, and St. James, Pennington – all of which are hosting a series of outdoor experiences.

Rose Gallagher, head of the worship committee in St. George Parish, said that she and those from St. Alphonsus and St. James were encouraged by their pastor, Msgr. Michael J. Walsh, to bring people together in a safe way for Advent and Christmas during COVID.

“He said, ‘I want to do something for the people … especially those who have not been able to come to Mass,’” Gallagher recalled. Msgr. Walsh asked the staffs to come up with outside displays for Advent through Christmas to help people feel connected.

While each parish’s display focuses on different aspects of the seasons, they all aspire to create that spirit of hope and outreach so many have longed for in this pandemic year.

“People can come and feel part of the Church again,” she continued, “and hopefully it’ll give them some hope knowing that these people [in the Bible] waited thousands of years [for Christ], and we just have to keep waiting, too.”

The Root of Jesse

St. George’s offering is an Advent drive-through using the theme of the Jesse Tree – a longstanding tradition in the parish.

“It basically traces the family tree of Jesus. When we first started [the tradition], we kept it mostly for the children, through religious education,” Gallagher said, explaining that over the years families would help assemble and decorate a Jesse Tree inside the church for the first Sunday of Advent. Since group decorating indoors is unavailable this year, they have taken the Jesse Tree idea to the church parking lot.

Now through Jan. 6, faithful can drive through a Jesse Tree display, tracing the roots of Jesus. There is an audio recording compiled by parishioner Joe Bezek that faithful can connect to on their cell phones. “He will narrate as they drive through … we will go through the lineage of Jesus, when people were waiting for the Messiah to come,” Gallagher said.

Other stops on the drive will include Abraham and the altar stone, Joseph’s coat of many colors, a root and crown symbolizing that Jesse was the father of David, who was king and leader of God’s people, and many others. The displays total 16 in all.

Signs will direct participants when and where to turn on the audio, as well as arrows pointing the direction of traffic as soon as they enter the church parking lot. Each stop will be numbered, Gallagher noted, and spotlighted in the evenings in a way “to make sure people can focus as they go by.”

New Kind of Stations

Similar to praying the Stations of the Cross in Lent, ministry members in St. Alphonsus Parish have instituted Stations of the Nativity on their church grounds.

The stations include outside banners created to prepare the hearts and minds of the faithful for the Birth of Jesus. From the Annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist to the Nativity and Visit of the Magi, there are 14 stations total.

“For people who are not comfortable coming back to in-person Mass yet, this is a new way that they can stay connected with their faith, but get out of their homes,” said Beth Young, St. Alphonsus head of worship. “[It’s] something that shows a positive highlight of how Christ affected history. … It’s a message of gentleness.”

Titled “Journey with Us to Bethlehem,” the project began in September with a group of planners including parishioners Pat McAlinden and Vincent Mistretta  that kept growing as more volunteered their help. The four-by-six-foot station banners – printed with the help of Mistretta, a business owner – will each feature artwork selected by liturgy coordinator Carole Umscheid, as well as a QR code that can be scanned by the camera on a smartphone. The code will take the viewer to a YouTube video that explains the station, and “gives a bit more depth to the banner,” Young said.

That depth comes in the form of the Readings from the four Sundays in Advent, she noted, which were compiled by Ann Crow, read by Don Cornelius and accompanied by guitar music from Scott Blandford – all members of the project planning group.

The stations began Nov. 28 on the church’s lawn. Live sheep will accompany the Nativity scene Dec. 20 beginning at 3 p.m. Four trees representing the four candles of the Advent wreath – three with purple bows and one with pink – will be lit with twinkle lights to correspond with each week of the season.

Spiritual Symbolism

St. James Parish, meanwhile, is looking to the symbols of Christmas – the joy and movements of the Christmas story to encourage more focus on faith aspects of the season and less on the commercial, said Joann Held, parish liturgy coordinator.

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The parish’s display will open Dec. 13 – Gaudete Sunday – perfectly timed for a Christmas experience focused on Hope, Peace and Joy – the latter of which comes from the Latin gaudete.

Symbols, according to Held, will include “the lights on the tree; the evergreen, reminding us of life; candles that remind us that Christ is the Light of the world; and of course hope – we need hope, maybe more than even in previous years,” she stressed. The Nativity will be prominently displayed in the middle island of the parking lot.

Held is hoping the display will help viewers “experience the story of Jesus’ Birth more deeply, or look at it from a different point of view. … This [display] gives each character their own special place, so you can reflect separately on each part – the shepherds, the angels, the kings – and think about what that adds to the whole story of Christmas.”

Finding volunteers to plan and create the drive-through “Sharing Hope”-themed display was the least worrisome aspect of the project, Held found. “This was a chance for people to actively and safely engage in the parish again during the pandemic ... and I think there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for that.”

Ecumenical Emmanuel

All three parishes are hoping their outdoor displays are inviting to all who are interested in learning about and connecting with the Christmas story, including neighboring churches.

“The way it’s presented is very holistic to Christians,” Young explained. “Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists – anybody could come through and feel comfortable. It’s the Bible story.” In her mind, the displays “are for all people who might want to walk that journey to Bethlehem.”

 

 


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Knowing that the holidays during COVID-19 will necessitate distance and perhaps even remote means of spiritual connection, parishes have found new ways to bring Advent and Christmas to the community.

Such is the case for The Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley parishes of St. Alphonsus, Hopewell; St. George, Titusville, and St. James, Pennington – all of which are hosting a series of outdoor experiences.

Rose Gallagher, head of the worship committee in St. George Parish, said that she and those from St. Alphonsus and St. James were encouraged by their pastor, Msgr. Michael J. Walsh, to bring people together in a safe way for Advent and Christmas during COVID.

“He said, ‘I want to do something for the people … especially those who have not been able to come to Mass,’” Gallagher recalled. Msgr. Walsh asked the staffs to come up with outside displays for Advent through Christmas to help people feel connected.

While each parish’s display focuses on different aspects of the seasons, they all aspire to create that spirit of hope and outreach so many have longed for in this pandemic year.

“People can come and feel part of the Church again,” she continued, “and hopefully it’ll give them some hope knowing that these people [in the Bible] waited thousands of years [for Christ], and we just have to keep waiting, too.”

The Root of Jesse

St. George’s offering is an Advent drive-through using the theme of the Jesse Tree – a longstanding tradition in the parish.

“It basically traces the family tree of Jesus. When we first started [the tradition], we kept it mostly for the children, through religious education,” Gallagher said, explaining that over the years families would help assemble and decorate a Jesse Tree inside the church for the first Sunday of Advent. Since group decorating indoors is unavailable this year, they have taken the Jesse Tree idea to the church parking lot.

Now through Jan. 6, faithful can drive through a Jesse Tree display, tracing the roots of Jesus. There is an audio recording compiled by parishioner Joe Bezek that faithful can connect to on their cell phones. “He will narrate as they drive through … we will go through the lineage of Jesus, when people were waiting for the Messiah to come,” Gallagher said.

Other stops on the drive will include Abraham and the altar stone, Joseph’s coat of many colors, a root and crown symbolizing that Jesse was the father of David, who was king and leader of God’s people, and many others. The displays total 16 in all.

Signs will direct participants when and where to turn on the audio, as well as arrows pointing the direction of traffic as soon as they enter the church parking lot. Each stop will be numbered, Gallagher noted, and spotlighted in the evenings in a way “to make sure people can focus as they go by.”

New Kind of Stations

Similar to praying the Stations of the Cross in Lent, ministry members in St. Alphonsus Parish have instituted Stations of the Nativity on their church grounds.

The stations include outside banners created to prepare the hearts and minds of the faithful for the Birth of Jesus. From the Annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist to the Nativity and Visit of the Magi, there are 14 stations total.

“For people who are not comfortable coming back to in-person Mass yet, this is a new way that they can stay connected with their faith, but get out of their homes,” said Beth Young, St. Alphonsus head of worship. “[It’s] something that shows a positive highlight of how Christ affected history. … It’s a message of gentleness.”

Titled “Journey with Us to Bethlehem,” the project began in September with a group of planners including parishioners Pat McAlinden and Vincent Mistretta  that kept growing as more volunteered their help. The four-by-six-foot station banners – printed with the help of Mistretta, a business owner – will each feature artwork selected by liturgy coordinator Carole Umscheid, as well as a QR code that can be scanned by the camera on a smartphone. The code will take the viewer to a YouTube video that explains the station, and “gives a bit more depth to the banner,” Young said.

That depth comes in the form of the Readings from the four Sundays in Advent, she noted, which were compiled by Ann Crow, read by Don Cornelius and accompanied by guitar music from Scott Blandford – all members of the project planning group.

The stations began Nov. 28 on the church’s lawn. Live sheep will accompany the Nativity scene Dec. 20 beginning at 3 p.m. Four trees representing the four candles of the Advent wreath – three with purple bows and one with pink – will be lit with twinkle lights to correspond with each week of the season.

Spiritual Symbolism

St. James Parish, meanwhile, is looking to the symbols of Christmas – the joy and movements of the Christmas story to encourage more focus on faith aspects of the season and less on the commercial, said Joann Held, parish liturgy coordinator.

[[In-content Ad]]

The parish’s display will open Dec. 13 – Gaudete Sunday – perfectly timed for a Christmas experience focused on Hope, Peace and Joy – the latter of which comes from the Latin gaudete.

Symbols, according to Held, will include “the lights on the tree; the evergreen, reminding us of life; candles that remind us that Christ is the Light of the world; and of course hope – we need hope, maybe more than even in previous years,” she stressed. The Nativity will be prominently displayed in the middle island of the parking lot.

Held is hoping the display will help viewers “experience the story of Jesus’ Birth more deeply, or look at it from a different point of view. … This [display] gives each character their own special place, so you can reflect separately on each part – the shepherds, the angels, the kings – and think about what that adds to the whole story of Christmas.”

Finding volunteers to plan and create the drive-through “Sharing Hope”-themed display was the least worrisome aspect of the project, Held found. “This was a chance for people to actively and safely engage in the parish again during the pandemic ... and I think there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for that.”

Ecumenical Emmanuel

All three parishes are hoping their outdoor displays are inviting to all who are interested in learning about and connecting with the Christmas story, including neighboring churches.

“The way it’s presented is very holistic to Christians,” Young explained. “Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists – anybody could come through and feel comfortable. It’s the Bible story.” In her mind, the displays “are for all people who might want to walk that journey to Bethlehem.”

 

 

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