For centuries, the Advent tradition has encouraged faithful Catholics to find hope, peace, joy, and love through their preparation for Jesus Christ’s birth and His second coming. Of course, as our world has evolved, traditions have also evolved—and it can be hard to slow down and truly give ourselves over to the season. That’s where we aim to help.
We recently spoke with four Minnesota priests to get their perspective and insights on honoring Advent tradition, as well as focus areas to observe the core themes of Advent.
One of those priests who graciously took the time to chat with us was Fr. Joseph Johnson, pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church. In this piece, we learn more about how Fr. Johnson came to find his calling, as well as his thoughts on honoring one of the important themes of the Advent season: Love.
Finding His Calling
Fr. Johnson grew up in Dallas, TX and by “God’s providence” he came to Minnesota to study philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. It was there that he entered the seminary and soon he was off to Rome to study for nine years.
“I’m a slow learner,” he joked.
Today, he’s closing in on 20 years as an ordained priest, and he’s served several churches around the Twin Cities such as St. Vincent’s and the St. Paul Cathedral during his tenure. Currently, he serves as pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church.
The Meaning of Advent
Q: When you think of Advent, what’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind?
A: “Preparation” is definitely the first thing that comes to mind. The Church has seasons of preparation and seasons of celebration. And Advent is a season of preparation—preparation for the season of celebration, which is Christmas.
Q: To you, what is the true meaning of Advent? Why is it important to our faith?
A: They often speak of the three levels of Christ—the History, the Mystery, and the Majesty. Advent is all about preparing and reflecting on all of those. You remember the gift of the Savior who came with the History. You acknowledge that He’s still present in the Mystery, and then you honor the Majesty in that He will come again.
Love and Advent
Q: “Love” is the theme of the fourth week of Advent. How does your parish honor that theme? What do your sermons focus on?
A: We often focus on love in two ways. One is the receiving of love—and the gratitude for that love; this profound recognition of love. As John 4:10 reads: “This is love; not that we have loved God but that He has loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins.”
Think about it this way. If you go out dancing, the only thing two people need to decide on is who is going to lead. Many of us say “I love God” or “I’m going to love God.” But really, He has loved us. He has the lead. It isn’t about us loving Him. The whole Christian life can seem so heavy with burden. But realizing that it is He who truly loves us can help us find the joy in being loved and the gratitude in being loved.
The second way we focus on love is giving the of ourselves and loving others. We do a lot of social service things such as Christmas caroling in nursing homes, taking up collections for the poor, and we also have a Giving Tree in the front vestibule. On the tree there are ornaments that have the needs of mothers and children at a local crisis pregnancy center. You take the ornament and get the items, and bring it back as a gift for them.
Q: During Advent, what scripture readings do you often turn to for reflection?
A: When it comes to the theme of love, I often focus on the three distinct personalities that emerge as loving figures: John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph. Each of them have very distinct representation of love.
When it comes to John the Baptist, he said: “He must increase and I must decrease.” It’s about being loved, not about me loving.
For our Lady, it’s the trust she had. She asked the Angel Gabriel: “How can this be?” But she asked him with trust. She trusted God’s love, and she was rewarded and commended. When Zechariah asked, he asked with uncertainty, and he was struck mute.
When it comes to St. Joseph, he showed us that a lot of love is patience and just logging through. Love is all those dirty diapers. He doesn’t even get a speaking part, but he goes through it all so faithfully.
Q: What is one of your all-time favorite Advent traditions?
A: The Advent wreath. I seem to add a new one to my personal collection every year. I like to meditate to it. You have all those candles burning, and you can physically see how they get shorter and shorter; see how the light begins to grow as you light each candle.
It’s the light in the dark. But even if it’s just one candle, the darkness helps you focus. Everything else seems to fade away and you think: “Christ is coming. The light of the world is coming.”
Q: Any final thoughts on how we can truly embrace the Advent season?
The real spirit and tradition of Advent has been lost. For most people, Dec. 26 comes and the lights come down, and we miss out on all the joy and celebration we’ve really been preparing for.
But it’s worth rediscovering Advent. One tradition I really love is doing things a little at a time. Start by putting the tree up, but don’t turn the lights on just yet. You can do the same thing with the nativity, adding a new character as the days pass. These are little tangible reminders of the motion of the unfolding season. So, really, just don’t cut the season short. We’re preparing for the celebration and we want to savor the celebration.