MinistryMatters
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MinistryMatters

The “Advent blues”: A

I am currently on leave from my position as rector at my church. It’s a caregiver leave, freeing me up to attend to the needs of a family member who has been struggling with significant illness. I credit my wise friend Louise with helping prepare my soul for taking this time away. About ten days before it became unavoidably clear that this was the choice I needed to make, Louise invited me to consider the parable of the one lost sheep. As Jesus’ illustration goes, there are ninety-nine sheep who are all where they are supposed to be, accounted for and safe in their pen. There is another sheep who is lost. The shepherd, we are told, is willing to leave the ninety-nine to search out and find that one wandering lamb.

“Sometimes,” Louise said, “what we’re called to do is to care for the one.”

I have been caring for the one. I am grateful that we live and work in systems that can make it possible for me to leave my work to care for my family. I am grateful for the love, prayer and support that surrounds me and us. I am grateful that I have not felt alone while taking this step back.

I had hoped to be back by the first Sunday of Advent. Instead, I needed to extend my leave. I sat at home in front of my computer screen this past Sunday, feeling the weight of the month ahead settle around my mind and heart, like a living, breathing darkness. “I feel blue,” is the description I have been using for friends and family asking how I am doing.

The reasons for this heaviness, this darkness, are multiple. First and foremost, the loved one for whom I am caring is hurting. This reality fills my days with worry and uncertainty.

But there are other realities which are also weighing on me. I worry about letting people down, about how all of the pieces of ministry are faring without me, and about how much my being away adds to the plates of others. Guilt. I am weighed down by guilt. Like so many people I know, I can wear guilt like a second skin. It is so much a part of me that it feels unimaginable to shed it.

Yet, the hardest thing about extending my leave is that it’s Advent, with Christmas right around the corner. It is in being away from the life of the church community I so love, which makes me realize that I don’t particularly like Christmas. That is to say, I very much love Christmas, and most especially the season of preparation and expectation leading up to it…

… but, only in the context of Christian community.

I can tolerate tinny Christmas music playing in every one of our public spaces only because of the joy of getting to sing all of my favourite Advent hymns (and then, Christmas carols) in church with a bunch of people who are also committed — all year, not just at Christmas — to showing up for each other and lifting our varied and imperfect voices together in song.

I don’t mind the hustle and bustle of braving the malls and navigating the wilds of online shopping, because that hustle and bustle has previously been tempered by the invitation issued through the stories of our faith—to wake up, to pay attention, to watch and wait for the Lord, whose promise to meet us in the mess of it all is always being realized.

I love Christmas baking, carving out time in the kitchen with my father to make our favourite family recipes, to be able to share these special and delicious treats with loved ones and to indulge far too much in food that is far too rich for year-round living. And somehow every bite of seasonal eating packs so much more of a punch when it becomes part and parcel of how we mark special time as a community of faith, how we speak of God’s desire to gladden and bless us, how we honour the times of feasting because of our commitment also to the church’s rhythms of fasting. Those book ends of feasting and fasting help us to be attentive to how all of our choices around food and prayer and song can open our eyes to see God who is at work in us and open our hearts in compassion for our neighbour.

I don’t know how to move through this season when I’m not part of the church. And I don’t exactly know how to be part of the church when my main option for worshipping with others is as an online visitor in someone else’s community. December stretches endlessly in front of me, because I feel untethered from any of the touchstones that normally make my heart sing at this time of year.

There is no particular merit in comparing or ranking one form of suffering against another. I am very aware that the alienation and disorientation I am feeling is only the smallest sliver of the kinds of loneliness, uncertainty, loss and grief that God’s people the world over are experiencing right in this moment. I am aware, too, of the privilege that I, as a Christian leader, have experienced throughout this pandemic — of being able to continue to show up in-person, even with the smallest group of people, to worship and sing in our sacred spaces so that some form of gathering could still be meditated for our predominantly online community. Most of the Church has, over the past twenty months, had to navigate exactly the challenge I am now facing. How do I connect with a community of prayer as something more than a spectator or visitor when I have become disconnected from the people, the sacred space and the familiar patterns of worship, that normally allow me to feel I am home? I am worried, restless and disoriented, but I am also keenly aware of just how many others are figuring out a whole slew of less-than-perfect dynamics for this—or any—season of Advent.

I was recently reading an Advent reflection by Joyce Rupp, written pre-pandemic, and speaking to the struggle so many people have with being too busy at this time of year. Rupp invites the readers to “recognize that the one whose birth I am preparing to celebrate dwells in the midst of all my activities.” As I read it, I first felt only longing. I would love to be in the throes of this season’s normally relentless breakneck pace. I am someone who finds a full-to-overflowing plate the most spiritually fulfilling kind of context. It is easy for me to attend to the power and presence of God when it is abundantly clear that I simply don’t have the strength, energy or time to go it alone.

But on the heels of that initial sadness came the realization that while the promise of Advent can certainly speak into busy middle-class North American holiday living, it by no means exclusively does so. “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst,” the prophet Zephaniah reassured the bruised and besieged people of Israel. My life is privileged beyond measure, but I felt seen and spoken to in these words too. This Advent season is also for those of us who have suddenly found ourselves in a very different pace of life, those of us who don’t know how to connect, those of us who can’t, for whatever reason, be part of the life of community and service in the way we might long for.

I grew up in a part of the church that had blue as the colour of Advent, rather than the traditional violet. I suspect that the reason Advent blue resonates with so much of the Christian church is because of how it describes darkness. That dark, deep colour offers us something essential: it makes room.

It makes room for a strong and steady centre in the hustle and bustle of our lives. It also makes room for the disorienting reality of enforced stillness.

It makes room for our celebration and for carving out traditions and songs and patterns that give expression to the joy and wonder of our lives. It also makes room for our lament and our cry for healing.

It makes room for our longing, for the deep well of need at the core of each our lives, which none of the hustle and bustle, the songs and traditions and celebrations can ever fill, which can only ever signify our need for more.

It’s the colour of darkness, but it’s also the colour that points to a horizon just beginning to challenge the midnight sky. It’s a heavy colour, heavy in all of the best kinds of ways: heavy with our hope and our expectant watching. It’s heavy with the promise that whatever may come, God will show up.

Even now, that blue of midnight is being met by the dawning light.

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Martha Tatarnic

Martha Tatarnic

Martha serves as priest at George's in St. Catharines. Her new book, “Why Gather?” is now available to order https://www.churchpublishing.org/whygather