Advent in Strange Times

Four Advent candles

Christmas is going to be different this year. The celebrations will be muted, COVID’s shadow falling over our nativities and family dinners, and much as we may want to rage against this, it’s a situation we’re stuck with. And that’s frustrating and heartbreaking in so many ways. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become such a cliche, but the stiff upper lip thing only goes so far, doesn’t it? This isn’t going to be the Christmas any of us imagined twelve months ago.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks of preparation and anticipation not just for Christmas but also the coming of the Kingdom of God. And in a year in which everything has been turned upside down, Advent is full of new possibilities.

But first things first, maybe it’s a time to grieve: to grieve those we’ve lost, the loved ones who won’t be with us around the table this year. We grieve the other things that are causing us suffering – job security, finances, physical and mental health, fraying relationships, loneliness. The Christmas lights seem to be going up early this year, but they shouldn’t mask the heartbreak. 2020 is going to be a rough Advent and it’s worth remembering that Blue Christmas is on December 21st. We have to make space to mourn the losses of the year.

Advent is also a time of looking forward, looking toward the promise of Christmas, looking toward God’s Kingdom breaking through. Sometimes it’s easy to take this for granted; Christmas is a time of tradition and ritual, we know what’s coming and look forward to it. That rug has been pulled from under us, but maybe there’s a strange kind of hope in that, opportunity in the uncertainty to find Christmas anew and reshape how we celebrate the coming of Christ.

I mean, when we look at it, Christmas is a time to remember that God has always been at work in a world of young families, stressed hospitality workers, blue collar labourers and farmhands, academics, refugees, grieving families, power-hungry authoritarians and protest-singing teenagers. Sometimes that gets lost behind the tinsel and the shopping. Maybe 2020 is an invitation to re-enter the more complicated Christmas faced by Mary and Joseph 2,000 years ago.

So how do we bring communities together when Coronavirus puts us all at risk? How do we do our Christmas shopping in a way that supports struggling independent businesses? How do we run online carol services while also being mindful of digital exclusion? How do we reach out to those who are constantly told there is no room at the inn? Advent is a space to ask all those questions.

The answers to these questions need to be inspired by the Spirit, who is already answering them; God is With Us within Coronatide, not in spite of it. And so throughout this weird, upside-down Advent, in this time of uncertainty and unexpected change, we need to hold on to Jesus, to find him in the chaos and confusion and follow him through. And I’ll be honest, here and now; I don’t know where to start with this, it feels like there are too many questions and not enough answers.

But Advent is a time to rediscover the guiding star, to put one foot in front of the other and set out for Bethlehem. The journey is before us and though the route is unclear, the destination is the same. Start walking.

Memorytide

jakub_schikaneder_-_all_souls_day
All Souls Day by Jakub Schikaneder

November is a time for remembering: All Saints and All Souls, Armistice Day and Guy Fawkes Night. As darker nights draw in and the world prepares for winter, the year gone by edges closer, like a haunting, and we remember all we’ve lost over the previous twelve months, in all its loneliness and hurt.

2020 has been a hell of a year, politics and Coronavirus combining to destabilize everything. Our losses have been magnified – all those months separated from those we care about, all those days of uncertainty, all those hours in the middle of the night as we try to ward off the shadows of despair. 2020 is going to live with us for a long time.

It’s okay to grieve. There are those who are no longer with us, there are opportunities that evaporated, there are hopes that have withered as their roots dried. Why shouldn’t we mourn the goodbyes, be saddened by the postponements? If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that getting back to normal is easier said than done.

But remembrance is also strength. We remember those we loved and still love even though they’re no longer here, We remember the things they taught us, how they made us feel, the billion things that made them them. We can hold these close, draw power from a shared story. The pain is real, the loss is real, but so is the love, and the greatest of these is love.

We remember our faith, all the saints who went before us, from St. Peter carrying the Keys to the Kingdom, to a quiet old matriarch carrying a mop. They formed us and helped us and taught us, they’re part of the DNA of our faith and they’re still with us somehow, a strange communion that exists even when our church buildings are closed and our meetings have found their way onto Zoom and Youtube, the waves and the wires. Remember that the Church is bigger than we think, that it incorporates robes and suits and tonsures and cornrows and wheelchairs and all those called by God, remember that the margins don’t keep people out, they just make the Church a whole lot bigger, remember that the Spirit will fly wherever the Spirit pleases and it’s easier to follow because you’ll never trap that Dove in a cage.

We remember the betrayal and the anger and the brokenness, the things that happened but shouldn’t have happened, the cold shoulder, the knife in the back. These things are also real, and they were wrong, they were stupid, they were sin. We remember to cry out for justice, for the pain to change us, not so that we become a monster that fights monsters, but so that it spurs us forward, helps us to get back on our feet one more time, to not let the gatekeepers and the life-thieves keep us from a better future, not let them steal our greater visions.

We remember the broken, we remember the fallen, we remember those who once stood proud on the parade ground who now shiver in doorways. We remember the heartbreaking sacrifices, we remember the silence at eleven, we remember the limitations of flags. We remember those who fight and those who flee, the improvised explosives and the sunken dinghies. We remember that, while don’t all go to war, and we don’t all escape a home in ruins, we can all try to be healers, be peacemakers, can all turn our swords into ploughshares, even if those swords are words.

This is a season of memory, and it has been for centuries. We should mourn with those who mourn as the days get short and the nights get long. But in this time of memory, in the days of ice and desolation, there are seeds buried deep in the ground and every tree stripped bare has the potential for new beginnings hidden within. Because Spring will spring, as unlikely as that sometimes feels; Easter is on it’s way, and while even Jesus still carries the scars of the past in his hands, he reaches out in the dark, weeps alongside you, picks up a lantern and guides us towards the dawn.

The Desolation of Holy Saturday (Matthew 27:57-66)

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.

Advent 2016: Be Still

Be still.

Advent is a time of expectation, so they say, a time of hopeful waiting. We light the Advent candles to guide us through the dark and hope for the coming of Christ at the end of it all.

That’s the theory. That’s the liturgical expectation. But Christmas is a busy time, pausing and waiting doesn’t feel possible because the festivities bear down on us like a freight train. We get so stressed out trying to find room at the inn that the stable is easily forgotten.

In the dark of a winter morning, I’ll be honest: these last few months have been hard. They’ve been stressful and frightening, the noise of hundreds of voices and demands all speaking at once. Details aren’t important, but it feels like a maelstrom, a whirlpool of emotion and fear, a babel of randomess that starts to feel conspiratorial. The storm rolled in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The rational part of me knows that this storm is transitory, that it’s a downpour rather than a hurricane. But the rest of me sees the clouds, and the lightning, and the rolling, hungry waves.

Psalm 46 encourages us to be still, and in that stillness to sense and hear that God is present, that he is with us, that he’s on the throne. In the stillness we can find hope and start to trust. Maybe that’s part of the problem: knowing how to let go of it all and just trust. I’m still wedded and welded to the idea that there’s something I’m missing, some trick or hack or insight that would make everything right, that I’m just not smart enough to see.

I know that’s crazy. I know that’s not really the case. But I’m still scared of what will happen if I don’t figure out the secret incantation, the life goals ninja move that would make everything right. And that fear, that stress, that unexpected arrogance, keeps me from the stillness, keeps me from knowing that God is there, and that that’s enough. I want everything to change, to calm down, to stop being so damn noisy that I can’t hear God.

But that’s backwards, isn’t it? It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. And knowing the theology and the dogma and the atonement theories isn’t a substitute for knowing God himself. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow Jesus, stumbling and fumbling along the way. It’s just that, when the rubber meets the road, he gets crowded out. Everything else looks bigger, more intimidating and imposing, even if it’s just an image of the Great and Powerful Oz rather than the conman behind the curtain.

And yet “Be still!” isn’t just a devotional suggestion; sometimes it’s salvation. “Be still!” is what Jesus commanded the storm when the disciples felt sure they were all gonna drown. And maybe that’s my calling throughout this Christmastide; to trust that the storm will eventually calm, and even if it doesn’t, to look into the eye of the hurricane anyway and see Jesus inside of it, letting him be the stillness in the squall, letting him drown out the words of the man behind the curtain.

Even when the man behind the curtain is me.

Advent 2016: Hoping for Hope at the End of the Night

The nights are drawing in and getting colder; the morning commute is barely illuminated by fog lights cutting through the mist. Winter, if not officially arriving for another few weeks, is waiting in the wings and making sure we’re ready for her big entrance, and this year, perhaps more so than any other I can remember, it feels like a midnight of a season.

We started 2016 grimly joking that it was going to be a difficult year. After all, we lost David Bowie and Alan Rickman within days of each other, things weren’t off to a great start. From there on in, things seemed to spiral until we’re knocking on the door of December and the world barely feels like it’s holding together. We live in interesting times, so the saying goes, but “interesting” is said with hollow, humourless laughter and a gnawing knot of fear.

Advent starts today, the closest Sunday to St. Andrew’s Day on the 30th. It starts the liturgical year with a sense of anticipation and expectancy, a countdown to Christmas and the coming of Christ. Children eat chocolate hidden in calendars. It’s a time of fervent waiting, but in this earthquake of a year, I need to see Advent as a journey back to Bethlehem.

I suffer from anxiety. That’s not an easy thing to admit, here in public, but there you go; we’re sometimes helped by honesty and, being honest, my sense of hope feels like so much static, no signal cutting through the noise. The people living in darkness still wait to see a great light. Or maybe it’s not about waiting; maybe it’s about having the eyes to see what’s already there, to see the source rather than the reflection or the shadows of imagined absence. The Magi saw the star but they still had to make their way to the manger.

I’m holding on but my fingernails hurt and I need to rediscover hope, need to trust that hope is there, even if that feels like a pilgrimage through the dark. And I don’t have a map and it’s too cloudy to clearly make out the stars, but I need to keep moving and just hope I’m moving forward.

We stand on the cusp of Christmas, the celebration of God moving into the neighbourhood. And so I pray that I’ll learn to trust in the promises implicit in that, not in some eschatological way, but in the day-to-day. Nowadays, when the world we built on shifting sand seems so fragile, when everything seems to be mutating towards something toxic, that trust is more important than ever. But it’s hard to hold on with hands balled into fists.

We use the seasons as symbols, and Advent takes us through the longest night so that we can see the light start to lengthen at the end of it. Christmas is coming, that hope is out there swaddled in a manger. This year I grope towards it once again, beaten and bruised but still stumbling stable-wards. The stumbling feels harder this time, there’s more to fight through. But by grace we manoeuvre through the night, the star still burns above a stable as we move ever onwards in the direction of Bethlehem.