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By Tish Harrison Warren
The past two years blur in my mind into a reel of fuzzy memories, stresses and changes, Covid alert levels, protests, violence, political animosity, Twitter fights, masks and yard signs. And that’s just what happened in the wider world. In my own life, there was a cross-country move, the birth of a son, hospitalizations for postpartum complications, job changes, church changes and a parent’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
All of us can list struggles in these past few years. The experience of a pandemic alone has been called a “mass trauma.” We’re tired. I’m tired.
So I am particularly grateful for the practice of Advent this year, a penitential season that began last Sunday. It is a time of spiritual and emotional preparation before the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
I am not ready for Christmas yet. I cannot force myself to barrel into festivities and holiday cheer. I need to take a minute. I need a season to notice, reflect on and grieve what we collectively and I individually have walked through this year (and the past few years, really). I need to take stock of where I am and how I got here.
Advent is a season of hope, and part of practicing hope is noticing where we need it. In church, congregants sing a well-known Advent hymn that begins, “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” We recall that we require ransom and rescue. Another year has gone by and we still live in a world in need of mending. We have learned anew through these long years that a virus can suddenly change our lives, that our illusions of control and predictability are fragile and faulty, that lies are often mistaken as truth, that we cannot keep ourselves or those we love from pain, that the wreckage of poverty, injustice and darkness persist. This is the very world of heartbreak, Christians say each year, into which Christ came and will come again.
The sister of hope, which looks forward, is remembering, which looks back. We recall God’s faithfulness in the midst of pain or beauty in the past to trust in God’s future presence and redemption. In an article for the BBC, Ed Prideaux wrote that part of how we recover from trauma is to remember and reflect. When trauma goes unprocessed, undiscussed, perhaps actively repressed, he wrote, we, as a group, “remain disturbed and unhealed.”
“Advent” means arrival or “coming.” In this season, the Christian liturgy asks us to imaginatively wait for the first coming of Christ at Christmas and for his promised future return (which is sometimes called the Second Coming). But we also wait for the coming of Christ in our own small lives. The church marks out this season for reflection, repentance and stillness not only because life is worth paying attention to (which it is), but also because the hope of Christmas cannot simply be a theoretical hope for a theoretical life. We walk into the Christmas season bringing with us all the particular days, minutes, struggles and laughter of this year.
So before we sing “Joy to the World,” before we pop open the bubbly, before we ring bells and open gifts on Christmas morning, we recall the actual and ordinary ways we need God’s blessings to “flow far as the curse is found.” We recall how we await the coming of Christ in the specific pain, disappointments, losses, relationships, work, needs and joys of this very moment in our lives.
To that end, I want to offer some ways to help embrace reflection and recollection.
1. Slow down. Advent offers a yearly call to notice our own lives. The holidays can get very busy. I understand that. But we can carve out even a few minutes each day or week to allow intentional time for stillness. Sit in silence for 15 minutes. Light a candle or go on a walk. Think of times of consolation or joy in the past year. What are ways that you have known provision, love, laughter or God’s nearness? Think of times of desolation. Where have you experienced anxiety, grief, anger, frustration or a sense of God’s absence? Journal, draw or simply sit with these feelings. Don’t try to fix them or avoid them. Simply acknowledge them.
2. Be curious about your own internal life. I turned 42 this year, so I have been low-key meditating on Psalm 42 all year. There’s a question that refrains in the Psalm: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
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