By Laura Stephens-Reed
I am so relieved that heading into Advent and Christmas 2021, the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. We can put aside the difficulty and the different look of last year’s holiday observances and go all out, with all of our people back in the pews!
The reality is that COVID-19 is still very much with us. I had hoped, just like you, that we’d be further along in containing the virus. That we’d all feel safe moving about the world again. That Advent and Christmas would feel, well, like Advent and Christmas. But a sizeable chunk of the population remains unvaccinated, including children under age five, who are still ineligible for shots. Many church folks, including me, continue to worship from home. Others have seemingly disappeared into the ether, and it’s unclear if they are connected to their own congregation, a new one, or none at all.
There are many possible responses to these facts. A denial of reality in which everything is fine, COVID is over. Blame, placed on pastors who aren’t “doing enough” or on the people who have not yet shown back up or on COVID precautions. Despair that our church isn’t bouncing back like we’d hoped and might not ever look the same.
I’d like to suggest a different approach: grounded hope. A hope that acknowledges the physical danger we still face and forges ahead anyway. A confidence that Jesus is with us in the particularity of our congregations and concerns. A belief that come what may, God wants good for us and invites us into agency, into actively making things better by the ways we treat one another and respond to challenge. An empowerment by the courage and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, who prompts us to recognize the holy and leap for joy when we least expect it.
None of this is an orchestra full of brassy carols or packed sanctuaries, but it still feels very much like Advent and Christmas as I read them in scripture. It is quieter and more organic, tenacious and generative, incarnational as well as heavenly. It is light shining in the shadows.
This kind of Advent and Christmas can prepare us well for what is to come. It will serve us well as we wander the wilderness of Lent and journey to the foot of the cross. It will make us more ready during the Easter season to take up Christ’s imperative to be the church in a new way. It will seed our readiness to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit’s fire and stream out of the sanctuary and into the world at Pentecost, welcoming everyone into the fold and proclaiming the love of Jesus in words and actions that others understand. Our grounded hope is making and will make us better disciples for this season of change and uncertainty.
This narrative is biblical. Let’s hold onto it and see what God will do with it – and with us.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.