by Rev. Michael Woolf for The Christian Citizen

There is perhaps no better liturgical season for finding new ways to make meaning than Advent. Typically, churches dig into a theme or set of ideas, challenging the faithful to live more fully into their faith’s values. This year is no different; except of course everything is different in the aftermath of an election year amidst an escalating COVID-19 pandemic. So, how can churches help congregants connect to this season of preparation and waiting this year, especially if many churches are entirely or partially worshipping online?

Many churches ritually anchor their Advent season with the lighting of Advent candles in worship, but it’s worth noting that this practice can be more meaningful if practiced around family dinner tables. In lighting the appropriate candles each day leading up to Christmas, anticipation builds, and the possibility for the discussion of the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy emerges. This is an especially powerful ritual for older children, who can take charge of lighting the candles and marking the time leading up to Christmas. Feel free to let them take charge of the ritual in ways that make sense for your family.

In order to facilitate this practice, my church is having a family church worship service in which we craft Advent wreaths, with supplies available for pickup from the church in the week prior. Importantly, these families can also play a role in our Zoom worship service, lighting their advent wreaths, encouraging worshippers to light their own, and keeping a congregational tradition alive in a new online format. Don’t forget to include the themes, Bible verses, and reflection questions for each week, so that congregants can make this practice an integral part of the Advent season! If done right, these families might make a new Advent tradition, centering their faith practice around a dinner table in a similar way that our Jewish neighbors celebrate Shabbat weekly.

Another way that congregations can help congregants who are isolated in the leadup to Christmas is by organizing innovative ways to connect through gift exchanges and virtual invitations to shared meals. Setting up a gift exchange in your congregation may seem like a lot of work, but really all it takes are clear guidelines about price and expectations, and if a virtual community like Reddit can do it year after year for hundreds of thousands of users, congregations can too. All who sign up are paired with another person from the congregation to receive a gift, and the sender is kept a surprise. It’s probably a good idea to have everyone send to someone else, avoiding pairings and direct exchanges, so that the gift you send and the one you receive are from different parties. Anonymity could be a part of the process, if you’d like a “secret Santa” type of exchange. Those who are isolated will enjoy not only receiving a thoughtful gift from someone in the congregation, but also will make meaning from giving a gift.

Likewise, if you know of those who will not be going on their traditional trip home for Christmas due to the pandemic, encourage them to connect with family via Zoom, or pair them with a family who can invite them to virtual Zoom Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner. Doing so could go a long way to alleviate loneliness in these times. Sharing a meal, each other’s Christmas traditions, and having a conversation are simple acts. However, these moments of community have the potential to infuse the season with more meaning and appreciation than previous years. There is also the hope that the relationships formed during this pandemic Advent and Christmas season will outlive this time of year, giving birth to more profound and unexpected community.

Advent is the season of anticipation and hope, and we are all yearning to make connections and meaning in a season that promises to be unlike any other. The pandemic doesn’t mean that churches have to give up on traditions. They simply have to be creative in how they implement them this year. If done right, we might find that the new ways that we live out our traditions help us to make meaning in unexpected, delightful ways. Such surprises are always a part of this time of year, and the Great Surpriser is sure to show up this unusual Advent season.

The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash