In liturgical terms, the coronavirus pandemic the world currently finds itself in the unrelenting grip of began with the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord in March.
Fast forward nine months and Christianity finds itself on the eve of the Miracle of Christmas — the Nativity of the Lord foretold by the Angel Gabriel to a virgin named Mary in the obscure town of Nazareth.
Now the question becomes: How do pastoral ministers throughout the Church of Scranton answer the challenging call to offer messages of joy, peace and hope to their scattered flocks for Christmas 2020?
For Father Carmen Perry, a Diocesan priest of 43 years who serves as pastor of Saint Luke Parish in Stroudsburg, the answer came recently while praying the Liturgy of the Hours as he was touched more deeply by one of the readings he has perused so often in the past.
“Perhaps it is because, during this dark time of the pandemic, as we journey through the holy season of Advent, we are reminded to welcome and open our lives to the Light of God and follow the Light,” Father Perry said.
The seasoned pastor was referring to a meditation from Saint Augustine in which the great Doctor of the Church reminds us:
“God, who is faithful, put Himself in our debt, not by receiving anything, but by promising so much to us. Through the prophets, He committed to writing those promises so we could see the way in which He would discharge them.”
Quoting the saint’s writings, Father Perry explained, “(God) promised us eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of His face, His holy dwelling in heaven, and after resurrection from the dead, no further fear of dying.”
“God not only made a written contract,” Father continued, “but also established a Mediator — not a prince or angel or archangel, but His only Son.”
Hearkening words from the popular Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem — “where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in” — Father Perry offered, “As we celebrate the miracle of Christmas, and even though we are in this dark world of sin and death, Jesus has come to raise us in God’s own Eternal Life.”
“May the Light of Christ shine within you in the Christmas season — and always,” he concluded.
Referring to the fact that his Christmas congregations will be comprised of those in attendance in church and those participating through closed circuit television or virtual broadcasts in the comfort of their own homes, Father Brian J.W. Clarke stated, “The celebration of Christmas Mass will be no less of a celebration of the birth of Christ.”
Ordained in 2002, Father Clarke shepherds the parish faith communities of Holy Rosary in Hazleton and Holy Name of Jesus in West Hazleton.
“As discussions began regarding Christmas preparations,” Father said, “people asked about decorating the church. Originally we planned to scale back quite a bit. As people heard this, they asked if we could decorate as before. They offered to help and make sure everything was prepared.”
Regarding his faithful, the Hazleton pastor indicated that it did not matter to them if they were physically in the pews or watching the Mass virtually online. They expressed strong sentiments to be able to experience the season’s familiar festiveness in order to help them enter into the celebrations.
“This year, even more so, the message will focus on the true celebration of Christmas, the birth of Christ,” Father Clarke expressed. “We are reminded that whether we are in a pandemic or facing some other crisis, it does not change the fact of Christ’s birth and the reason to celebrate. We pray that no matter the situation, all will be open to receive the joyful spirit of Christmas during this blessed season.”
As the pastor of Saint Peter Parish, Wellsboro, and Saint Thomas the Apostle Parish, Elkland, Father David Bechtel plans to convey his Christmas message on the true meaning of the Incarnation by way of hypotheticals: What if all the trappings we associate with Christmas — Santa Claus, toys, festive dinners, decorations and presents under the tree — were suddenly absent from our celebrations? What if we cannot gather with loved ones due to sickness, death or even a global pandemic?
“If we believe Christmas is all of those things, that if we don’t have those things we cannot have Christmas, then we have a problem,” he remarked. “All of these have little to do with Christmas. The real meaning of Christmas is that God has come among us and God is with us.”
The youthful pastor continued by stating that many wonder why a loving God would not suddenly eradicate the pandemic or allow it to happen in the first place.
“God most certainly can take it from us,” he said of the ongoing health crisis, “but it is in times of adversity that we grow. It is in times of adversity that we find out who we really are. Times of adversity become times for the power of good to reveal itself.”
Such a pandemic, he suggested, allows for the opportunity of personal and spiritual growth and to utilize the God-given gifts and talents at our disposal to overcome life’s challenges.
“God is with us in this pandemic just as He has been with His people during times of crisis throughout history,” Father Bechtel offered. “The gift of Christmas serves as a reminder that God is with his people. God walks with his people. God will never leave us or forsake us. He is united with us and can never be divided from us.”