Not alone (Fourth Advent)

Loneliness. As former surgeon general Vivek Murthy recently argued in his book Together, it’s reaching epidemic proportions, with a host of negative consequences to our physical and mental well-being. And ironically (or perhaps prophetically?), although the book was published this year, he wrote it before we found ourselves in a pandemic that forces us to isolate from one another. Seen in that way, COVID hasn’t just created a bad situation. It’s made an already bad situation worse.

Umm…Merry Christmas?

But as we approach the end of the liturgical season of Advent, preparing to celebrate again the birth of our Savior, I want to circle back to the questions I raised last Sunday. Advent is a time of expectation: what are we expecting, really? For what are we hoping? And what will our “new normal” be?

As I write this, it’s still early December. It was just yesterday that I hauled our artificial tree out of storage and set it up. My wife and I waited until the evening, when our daughter arrived for her weekly visit, to hang the ornaments on the tree — mostly, ornaments that I’ve made by hand from polymer clay over the many years. Decorating the tree doesn’t take long to do, but it’s something of a family ritual, one that began when the kids were still small.

The other rituals, however, are now gone, probably for good. With the exception of our daughter and my mother, the family members with whom we used to share Christmas dinner have all moved away this year. Mom is not allowed to leave her assisted living facility except for doctor visits, so must spend Christmas alone. Moreover, the governor’s recent stay-at-home edict forbids all private gatherings, and it seems highly unlikely that the restriction will be lifted by Christmas.

Under COVID, every day seems to bleed into the next with an almost stultifying sameness; we have to stop and think for a moment even to remember what day of the week it is. The family rituals that mark the seasons and days of celebration — birthdays, anniversaries, Easter, Thanksgiving, and now Christmas — have all been infected by the pandemic’s pall.

We are isolated from community, from family. And some of us feel terribly, terribly lonely.

So, what are we expecting? It’s right and good to hope for an end to the pandemic. Death and disease, after all, were never God’s will for his perfect creation. It’s right and good to hope for a restoration of our ability to gather and be in one another’s company; God created us for community. And there’s nothing wrong with wishing we could find a way to bring back something of our cherished Christmas traditions.

It is in the nature of hope, it is the essence of Advent, to look forward into the future we desire — to wait for it, to long for it, to reach out toward it with our very souls. But for that hope to be Christian hope, we must look to the future through the lenses of our present reality, the reality of what it means to know, by faith, that our life here and now is life in Christ.

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. God’s people waited through centuries of what seemed like the utter silence of God, waiting, hoping, longing for Messiah to come. Sadly, not everyone recognized the time of his coming when it finally arrived.

But some did. And for them, that first Advent meant a new normal: not the absence of God, but his presence. God with us, in the flesh, walking among us. Sitting down to eat with us. Teaching and healing us. Dying for us.

And then coming back, and giving us his Spirit, so that we would know: God is still with us, and will be even to the end of the age. With the First Advent behind us, we look forward to the Second Advent, when Jesus will come again, when death will die and all will be made right and whole, when God will once and for all live with his people in a new heaven and new earth.

Today, this season, we may feel lonely, perhaps bitterly so.

But by faith, we must continue to declare that we are not alone.

Yes, we need each other; the very story of creation testifies to that. And I pray that in this odd and isolating season we would reach out to one another through whatever means the law and wisdom will permit.

But if we do so only with the thought of trying to make things feel more “normal,” we may end up reinforcing our sense of deficit and loss. Let’s face it: things aren’t normal, period, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. And yet, as we reach out, we can lean into the new normal of the First Advent, of Christmas, of Easter, of Pentecost. Emmanuel. God is with us.

So send that email, saying “Hi,” or “Thinking of you,” or “Merry Christmas.” Reach out and text someone. Make a phone call. Go totally old school and write a letter. Go new school and Zoom around the neighborhood or the globe. But do so as a reminder and sign of what we say we believe, of what we celebrate at Christmas: God is with us. And because of this, in his Spirit, we can be there for each other.