As the Church begins a new year, marked as usual with the period of Advent to prepare and wait for Christmas, Grant Tungay reflects on how to enter this time prayerfully, especially within the context of this past year, marked with the trauma of COVID-19 and the experience of lockdown.
As we enter this season of Advent, we are coming to the end of a difficult year. One of the obvious difficulties we have experienced is how deeply this COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the normal functioning of our lives. From my own Christian perspective, perhaps the hardest aspect of this pandemic to deal with has been the interruption to the free practice of my faith. During the most intense times of lockdown in Kenya, I could not go to confession and I could not attend daily Mass physically, with all of my Mass attendance being done online. As a Jesuit, daily Mass has always been a given part of the routine, so when my community in Kenya stopped daily Mass for a couple of months under lockdown, this was a very strange and difficult time. It has been a strange and difficult time for the entire Church.
The global pandemic has not ended, even though some restrictions have been lifted in Kenya, in particular those relating to religious gatherings. We have a limited access to the practice of our faith, but it is not yet a free and unrestricted practice. We enter into Advent waiting – waiting for ‘normalcy’ to return to our faith, whatever that will look like. We wait for a vaccine to come, hoping that this will mean we can go to Mass unimpeded, that we can go to confession again without fear – even if that confession is in a confined and under-ventilated space. We wait for a time when weddings can be joyfully celebrated in large numbers once again, and when we can give our loved ones the kind of respect we want to – with a free gathering of people at a funeral. We wait for a time when hospital visits by chaplains can bring the much-needed comfort and strength that the anointing of the sick is designed to bring. We wait…
This theme of ‘waiting’ is an important aspect to the period of Advent in the Church’s calendar. The wonderful rhythm of the readings at Mass and in the Divine Office help us to enter into that ancient longing the Israelites had for their own salvation. In the very centre of this deep longing came the prophecies that God will come close: God heard the cry of his people and Christ’s coming is foretold on the lips of prophets. We meditate on these texts to remember what that longing of God’s people was like, as a way to prepare ourselves to invite Christ anew into our midst, into the centre of our own sufferings and struggles.
This rich meaning of Advent can surely attain a special significance in this year of COVID-19. As we wait for vaccines to come, and for all restrictions to religious observance to lift, our waiting does not have to be sterile. During Advent we can make a renewed connection to our own longings for the Lord, even in the midst of COVID-19’s challenges. This longing for union with the Lord is beautifully expressed in the ancient practice of ‘spiritual communion’. As the encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia acknowledges, the Eucharist is the ultimate sacrament that nurtures our union with God and with one another. Even when we can’t make it to Mass, just our deep longing for God can produce some of the fruit of the Eucharist – our deep yearning can draw us closer to God and can nurture his love in our hearts.
Advent also invites us to acknowledge that the Kingdom of God is amongst us, but it not yet fully established. In his recent encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis acknowledges that the world is impacted by deep divisions, and he calls us to nurture a universal communion. COVID-19 has in many ways turned a spotlight on the ways our Christian communities function, or don’t function, when it comes to human solidarity. Taking into account that the Eucharist is at once a building up of communion as well as a celebration of a union already present, we could take this time of Advent to prepare our hearts for the full resumption of our religious practices and especially Mass. When we finally do resume our religious observance, are we ready to welcome all of our brothers and sisters in our community? Are we ready to be in solidarity with all whom we meet at Mass? Or will it be the case of resuming familiar rituals and getting back to ‘business as usual’? Seen from the perspective of Advent, this time of waiting for the pandemic to be over and for the full recovery of our religious expression can still be a fruitful time. We can use this time to acknowledge how deeply we are longing for the Lord and for communion with one another, knowing that even this desire for union with God can be efficacious. We can also use this time for self-reflection, acknowledging where we need to grow in terms of community participation and preparing for the building up of a Church ever more deeply marked by the love of Christ.