“An urgent reality … a state of public health emergency.” This is how our premier, Jason Kenney, described our situation in Alberta last week because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is probably not news to anyone that the number of new cases in Alberta has continued to rise dramatically over the last couple weeks. Hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients and intensive care units are nearly at full capacity. Many of us have at least been indirectly affected now and perhaps we even know one of the many beloved people who have died due to complications of the virus.
The seriousness of this situation has forced the hand of our premier to enact stronger restrictions. “Bleak” is the word that comes to my mind. Things are simply not looking good in Alberta right now.
To many, what makes the situation even harder is the timing of it all; Christmas less than a month away. This is normally the time when things begin to really ramp up in preparation for the holidays; excitement escalates and travel plans are being made.
Yet so much of the shopping and socializing will not take place this year. The “holiday season” will be zapped of much of its regular jolliness and excitement. To most people, “urgent reality” or “bleak” are words that especially don’t mix well with this time of year.
Yet for many of us Christians who faithfully celebrate the season of Advent, “bleak” is precisely the starting point. Advent begins in an “urgent reality.” There’s a reason we traditionally light a series of candles during this season, and that reason, as Rev. Fleming Rutledge describes, is that, “Advent begins in the dark.”
Advent is, of course, the beginning of the liturgical year. As such, it echoes the beginnings of God’s creative work that opens out of the nothingness and darkness.
Our participation in Advent draws us into the story that God began with the darkness of the void and brought life out of this nothingness. Our participation in Advent loops us back to the despairing cries of the children of Israel as they suffered and toiled in Egypt, before God began the life-giving work of liberating the people from oppression.
And our participation in Advent returns us to the miserable Roman occupation over Palestinian Jews over two thousand years ago; the darkened site where God would choose to begin a whole new chapter to God’s story of life, love and liberation.
Our situation right now is indeed bleak. Perhaps not quite as bleak as in other parts of the world, or at other times in our history. We are not toiling under Egypt or suffering an occupation under Rome. Still, people are getting very sick and many are dying, and our social and collective lives have drawn many into isolation and despair. It’s been a relatively long time now and many of us are asking that question that is very Advent-like: “How much longer?”
So, this season of Advent is a gift to us right now. Not as a way to distract us, fast-forward us through our hardship, or dull this urgent reality with sentimentalities. Advent is a gift to us because we can draw our situation into a wider story of God’s faithfulness, love and deliverance in the midst of distress.
Advent allows us to make sense of the bleakness and make productive use of our darkened reality by infusing it with meaning.
Our hope is not ultimately in scientists and pharmaceutical companies racing to manufacture a vaccine, though I’m sure many of us would welcome that breakthrough. Neither is our hope in political legislation to either grant us freedom or enact further restrictions.
Rather, our hope is in a God who has been here before. Darkness and nothingness is familiar territory for our God and that knowledge should motivate us to keep awake and stay ready for God’s in-breaking presence.
Keeping the story of our God in mind, we can make it through this bleak Advent time and have full faith that, as Jason Kenney said, “the end of this terrible time is in sight.”
Caleb Kowalko is the lead pastor at Calgary First Mennonite Church. This reflection originally appeared in the Nov. 25, 2020 edition of The MCA Communiqué, MC Alberta’s weekly e-newsletter.