Nine months ago, services at St James were suspended because of the pandemic. Many of us who are watching on livestream today have not been in church—in this beautiful and holy space for nine months.
Nine months is a long time, long enough for a baby.
It has often been said that when we experience a great loss, or a death, new life will come. I've seen this happen in my life. Maybe you have seen it in yours. Someone in your family dies, and then, not too long after that, you hear the news that another family member or a friend is going to have a baby. And it makes you wonder. How this could be, that at the very same time you are bent over in grief over the person you have just lost, a baby is on the way.
How is it possible to hold these two feelings, at the same time—feelings of utter grief, and feelings of unexpected joy. And yet that is what we are doing today, at church, as we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent.
Today we light the rose-colored candle, the candle that reminds us of the Joy that is coming. We also remember the Joy that has already come. Advent reminds us that we, like our ancestors, are people who walk in darkness. Unlike our ancestors, who only knew the promise of a Messiah, we know where the Messiah’s coming led. When we light this week’s Advent candle, we remember not just the cradle, but the cross and the tomb and the Joy we were given that Easter—a Joy like no other. This Joy is real. This Joy is true. This Joy is ours even when we don’t feel like celebrating, even when we can’t have the Christmas we wanted to have this year.
The Joy we meditate on this Third Sunday of Advent is a Joy that finds us in the darkness. It is a Joy some say takes root in the darkness. One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for a moment, the darkness where seeds first come to life: a womb, maybe, or a garden. In Scripture, they often signify the same thing. Today’s psalm evokes a time of darkness by first remembering a time of happiness and contentment, when God had come to the aid of God’s people.
“[T]hen we were like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, And our tongues with shouts of joy.”
But then calamity struck. And so the psalm-writer begs the LORD to restore their fortunes, ending his song with a refrain meant to inspire hope by recalling an ancient practice. No matter how much you grieved, you still had to plant your seeds, even if you cried the whole time. Those who grieved during planting, as they stuck those seeds into that dark earth and wept over them, had all the more reason to rejoice at the harvest, because the crops those years were always more bountiful. The people knew this; they just needed to be reminded:
“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, Will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
When the pandemic started, about a year ago now, none of us could have imagined we would be where we are today. Nearly 300,000 people in this country alone have died—more than the total number of US combat deaths during World War 2. No one who has lived through this time will be unchanged. Life will never be the same.
Not everyone accepts this, of course. Most of us have heard about, or know, people who believe the pandemic is a hoax. For those of us who have the virus right now, or have had it and may be suffering some of its long-term effects, and especially those of us who have lost people to it, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could deny that we are in the throes of a world-wide pandemic.
It could be grief. Pastoral theologian R. Scott Sullender has written a lot about grief. Pastor Sullender would say that those who think the pandemic is a hoax may be unable to grieve. Some of us need to see and touch before we can believe. And some of us won’t believe, even when we one of the ones who have the complications that have killed so many people, even people who were young and healthy.
When someone thinks the pandemic is a hoax, when they spend all their time looking for or even inventing evidence to support our disbelief, they may not be able to accept their own vulnerability, or anybody else’s for that matter.
And yet we have to believe, as people of faith and compassion, that God is waiting for those who can’t face into their vulnerability, just as God is waiting for us to go deeper into the darkness ourselves.
Some people say that the purpose of Advent is to get us to grieve what we have been putting off grieving.
Most of us do not deny the reality of a death or many deaths for very long. It takes a lot of effort to sustain such a delusion. But all of us are susceptible to denying the emotional toll our grief has taken on us. Our society gives us plenty of incentive to suppress or deny our feelings of loss. Even Christmas, with all its glitter and excesses, can be used to stave off the emptiness we are sometimes too afraid to name, the emptiness that comes with losses that have piled up over the years in us and make us want to eat and drink more than we should.
There’s a lot of extra pressure on churches and families this year to contribute to the emotional denial most of us are experiencing right now. We just want this to be over. We just want some of the “comfort and joy” we’ve been missing. We want Christmas this year to give us a break from all the sadness we’ve been experiencing, and the sadness we know is still coming despite the vaccines that are on their way even as we speak.
The Third Sunday in Advent invites us to go into the darkness of our grief, to go ahead and cry, when we need to, and to turn to God for the small seeds of hope that will make it possible for us to believe in God’s promises even when we are surrounded by darkness.
Being together in church, singing our beloved Christmas carols together, and receiving the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, the way we always do, is not something we can do this year. Traveling to see family, meeting up with our friends and staying out late—isn’t something we should be doing either.
This is our Advent this year. We grieve, we hope, and we wait. May God help us find our Joy in this, as we prepare for his wondrous birth.
Let us pray.
Lord, your universe mirrors the reality of our feelings, revealing your gracious spirit that mourns with us in our grief, cries with us in our sorrow, and sits with us in our despair. You are not removed from human pain, but a Faithful Companion who is closer to us than our tears. Help us to feel your presence now, as we remember and reflect. Help us welcome your healing presence with the hope that was promised and delivered in Jesus Christ.