Advent, a season of anticipation and preparation, invites us to pause, reflect, and open our hearts to the profound mystery of Christ’s coming at Christmas.
In this special time, we find solace in the promise of hope, the light that pierces through the darkness, illuminating our path towards spiritual renewal and transformation.
At this difficult and distressing time in history, with so much conflict, we pray with the hope of Christ for peace and for justice as we reflect on the true message of Jesus’ birth in an dirty, drafty stable, far from home and material comforts.
As we are surrounded by commercial messages and the fake Christmas of the commercial world, we instead recall and reflect on the difficult, stressful and exhausting journey made by Mary and Joseph as we prepare for true Christmas.
As another year draws to an end, we also reflect on our own lives, our successes and failures, joys and sorrows, challenges and blessings and unite them all with this journey towards the first Christmas, towards hope, joy and the light of Christ.
Here are three Advent prayers to use during December as we prepare, reflect and above all, hope.
With expectant waiting we anticipate your coming. Come close to us, Lord, come very close.
Come, Alpha and Omega, who is from before the ages. Come, Son of Joseph and Son of Mary, who went down to Nazareth to be obedient to them.
Come, Morning Star, who named the stars.
Come, carpenter from Nazareth, who knows the smell of planed wood.
Come, Beloved Son of God, who knows the heart of God.
Come, Son of Man, who knows the hearts of God’s people.
Come, Lord of Life and Prince of Peace. Come, Dayspring and Rising Sun. Come, Wonderful Counsellor. Come Emmanuel, God with us; God very close to us.
Advent litany: Lord, we look to you
As we look to you for judgement, hold out your hand of compassion that we may be chastened by your show of mercy and reach out to others in reconciliation.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope
As we contemplate our end, make us mindful of your promise of a new beginning that we may share your promise of life and bring hope to those who sit in darkness.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope
As we remember Elizabeth in her barrenness, fill us with longing for the birth of a new creation that we too may be surprised with joy and labour with those who seek to make all things new.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope
As John leapt in his mother’s womb, help us so to recognise Christ in friend and stranger that we may respond in love and learn to serve our neighbour with generosity not judgement.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope
As Mary and Elizabeth sought each other, grant us the wisdom to recognise our needs that we too may seek each other in solidarity and offer strength to the powerless.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope
As Mary proclaimed the salvation of the Lord, give us courage to stand alongside the downtrodden that we may sing of their hopes and join hands to realise their dreams.
Lord, we look to you in whom we hope and whom we long to see.
God of hope
God of hope, we cling to you, for your renew the face of the earth. Through the gift of your Son, our Lord Jesus, we follow you on the path of dawn. Enlightened by your love and wisdom, help us to lead each other and all creatures back to your open arms. Amen.
In 2020 we went into Lockdown during Lent. Who would have thought that we are approaching another Lent starting on 17th February in 2021 and we are in Lockdown 3? This time, speaking for myself – and I suspect others too – there is weariness and anxiety and a greater understanding that this “new normal” is going to take longer than we thought last Lent.
However, we now have vaccines which are being given as quickly as systems allow. We each also know from experience what has supported us this far. Perhaps our faith in God? Our faith in other people? Family and friends? TV? The Internet? Perhaps we are trying to concentrate more on the present, rather than thinking about the past and worrying or wishing for the future. And particularly if we live alone we may have developed routines, diversions and self knowledge and self- care to know what has, and has not, got us through this far?
For most of us it is a journey of ups and downs, and that is a natural response to stressful events, loss and anxiety. We are all much clearer about what we have “lossed”: the death of family and friends, health, jobs and money, stability, being in close contact with others, going to our churches to meet our church community face to face, spontaneously planning outings, holidays, meals, theatre trips or watching ordinary life out of the window.
So, what about Lent, where we spend time thinking about Jesus and “journeying” with Him towards Jerusalem to his Death and Resurrection?
Can we cope with it this year? Or do we think our observation of it matters more than ever? We are encouraged to believe in Jesus, who, as God, is suffering with us, in the midst of us rather than a distant God. Though it may not feel like it.
Sometimes I am thinking how I am perhaps in a kind of desert with Jesus, or in a storm or sinking in the sea, or perhaps standing on a mountain and sometimes I stand on solid ground with a sense of purpose. It may vary.
We are all in a strange space between life as we knew it before March 2020 and life after a global pandemic. What are we thinking about how to spend Lent? Some of us may feel we are suffering enough already, or too tired or too “prayed out” or feel abandoned, so considering extra in Lent may be too difficult to consider.
I have been looking at two very different books which I plan to use:
The Book of Psalms (translated by Jesuit scriptural theologian Nicholas King) ,
” The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy
I aim to reflect on both of them this Lent.
I have found a journey of crisis, uncertainty, fear, reflection, support, joy, calm and hope in both these books. In some ways they are complementary, despite the several thousand years and different cultures that separate them.
Charlie Mackesy’s book has a message that is not overtly religious but I believe it is profound, spiritual and relational. It is a book is for all age groups and it is a journey about love, friendship, kindness, wisdom and hope, and I find it very inspiring.
The Psalms express fear, anger, distress, fatigue, remorse, forgiveness, hope, thanksgiving and praise. Nicholas King helpfully says that “when the psalmist talks of “my enemies”, for example, we are no longer in touch with the original reference, and sometimes it is easier to pray such verses as a reference to those inner thoughts that upset us or alienate us.” I found this explanation useful, enriching and not physically war-based. I have now been reading the concept of enemies and struggles in the context of the global pandemic and the thoughts and feelings I have about it. I offer extracts from some of the Psalms.
Extracts from Psalm 42:"Just as the deer longs for springs of water,
so my soul longs for you....
Why are you so very sad, my soul?
Why are you troubling me?....
Deep calls upon deep, at the sound of your waterfalls,
all your billows and your waves have gone over me....
Why are you so very sad, my soul?
And why are you troubling me?
Hope in God, for I shall sing God's praises.
the one who saves me, my God."
Psalm 42 talks about enemy oppression and being asked by enemies where is our God? I am thinking that the enemy in this Psalm might include the fear, doubt and loss that Covid 19 has on our lives. Ultimately out of longing and sadness comes eternal safety and hope.
From Psalm 69:
" Save me, O God, for the waters have reached my soul.
I am stuck fast in deep mud, and there is nowhere to stand;
I have gone into the depths of the sea, and a storm has swamped me;
I am exhausted from crying out; my throat is sore;
my eyes are worn out from [looking] expectantly for God....”
These words remind me of media interviews from exhausted doctors and other health care workers. And I sometimes feel swamped and exhausted by all the news and statistics about Covid 19.
Then in Psalm 23 God is a loving shepherd:
“For even though I should walk
in the midst of the shadow of death,
I shall not fear evil,
for you are with me;
your stick and your rod,
these have comforted me.”
N. King suggests the the stick may be for support and the rod to ward off “attackers”, or in my view those intrusive negative thoughts.
In Psalm 46 “ a psalm about hidden things” is how King translates the title:
“God is our refuge and strength,
a help in the troubles that find us out.
Therefore we shall not fear
when the earth is stirred
and the mountains are shifted
in the heart of the seas”....
“The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our helper.”
Then we are given wings to fly away and rest in Psalm 55, and shelter in Psalm 63.
From Psalm 55“My heart was disturbed inside me,
and the fear of death fell upon me.
Fear and trembling came upon me,
and darkness covered me.
And I said, “Who will give me
wings like a dove,
that I may fly away and be at rest?
Look, I have travelled far in my flight
and made my lodging in the desert.”
From Psalm 63:“I shall dwell in your tent for ever. I shall be sheltered
under the shelter of your wings.”
It seems to me that this Lent the Psalms may help us to find words for our fear, sadness and hidden thoughts in a pandemic and also the hope and rest that many of us believe will come through God. Some of us may place ourselves in the imagery of the desert and the storms but also the protection of the tent or under the shelter of wings.
And what of the words and illustrations in Charlie Mackesy’s book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”? These characters meet and learn about themselves through each other and philosophise profoundly on behalf of us all as they journey together: (There are no page numbers.)
“Everyone is a bit scared said the horse, but we are less scared together. Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.”
This might be helpful for reflection on our own fear and expression of emotion, and as we read of the tears and exhaustion in Psalms, including Psalm 69.
“Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.” (said by the Boy.)
The Psalms give vent to internal emotions, that are at times expressed openly and at other times are on the inside, or under the cover of darkness, or may be the “enemies” mentioned so often in these Psalms. As Nicholas King said previously the warring enemies of the Psalms may be the conflicting turbulent thoughts we have at times. For healthy mental wellbeing we are often encouraged to reflect on our inner thoughts and try to work through them. We may need to express them in some way. Sometimes we need to ask for support.
“ Asking for help isn’t giving up”, said the Horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”
And sometimes we need to focus on our blessings and look at what we value:
“When the big things feel out of control…focus on what you love right under your nose.” “This storm will pass,” said the Horse.
And if we feel tired with contemplating the journey through Lent we each discern what we will do, remembering that Resurrection and hope follow Lent and the Crucifixion. The Fox doesn’t say much but joins the journey, helps the others and not talking is accepted too… Perhaps this year we allow ourselves some leeway and “time out” when we need it.:
“ Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses” said the Mole.”.
And if we need reminding how far we have travelled the Covid 19 journey as we enter Lent:
“ We have such a long way to go”, sighed the Boy. “Yes, but look how far we’ve come” said the Horse.”
I wrote a Reflection in Covid 19 time at the end of March. Four months further on what have I, (what might we,) have learned since?
Looking back on it we have all travelled a long way since March.
At the end of July there are fewer newly infected people and fewer deaths in the UK, but the infection and death rates have been horrifyingly hard.
In other countries rates continue to rise, in some areas where war, poverty and the attitude of some country leaders to the Virus mean infection and death rates in parts of the globe are soaring.
We hope that Covid 19 decreases globally. Many lives have been irrevocably changed. In the UK some people are returning to work. Others have lost their jobs. Many of us can now go out more and our churches, shops and other facilities are opening.
I thank God for the tireless work of scientists, NHS staff, those working in care homes and other essential workers who have toiled thus far. And although some government decisions can be criticised I am grateful that I live in a democratic society where we aim for transparency, we can question what is happening and our health, social and educational services have standards of reasonable governance.
What has happened locally?
Some of you may have been ill with the Virus, for many there have been life changes, people bereaved and grieving deeply for others who have died, without some of the usual parish community funerals, Requiem Masses, and supportive visits. Zoom and other internet facilities have helped but can only go so far. We hope that our parishes and communities will start to open up more. We also know that many of us are anxious, and worried about our and others’ future, finances, employment and young people’s education.
Many of our parishes and other organisations have been very busy supporting the bereaved, the sick, supporting foodbanks and giving grants for essentials. There have been networks of parishioners keeping in contact with older people, those living alone. families, the newly and chronically impoverished, the homeless, destitute asylum seekers.
Many people have prayed, phoned and supported each other as best we can. Kindness has been flourishing. Hugging does not suit everyone but how many of us have missed this….?
In our organisations andparishes, we are beginning to think how we can come together in our communities and parishes to memorialise and support each other when the restrictions for Mass attendance and meeting each other are further lifted.
When I last wrote the air was clearer and spring growth was fresh and unfolding new colours and flowers every day. Now, many have returned to work, shops and parks, the school holidays have started, traffic noise has returned, and the deeper, established greens of high summer are around us. If people are able to go on holiday it is more likely be within the UK than abroad. We are fortunate to have sea and beautiful countryside not too far from us.
We are hopeful of finding an effective Vaccine after the final tests are done to ensure its safety and efficacy. Other countries are also exploring different types of vaccination. It is being acknowledged that we will need different vaccines and approaches in different situations.
Health workers are discovering new effective medical procedures to help the very sick, and existing medications are being used in different, effective ways to help more people survive and recover more quickly from the symptoms of the Virus. The pandemic we believe will pass but we will likely be living with spikes of the virus until a vaccine is proved to be safe and works.
Uncertainty remains. Vigilance, hand washing, social distancing, face-coverings and some curtailment of our freedoms is having to be negotiated. Hopefully with measures like Track and Tracing any recurrence will more likely be spikes on a local basis that can be targeted and treated.
Being on the side-lines
One of the things I have had to learn as an older person is to be more on the side-lines. I am a retired Social Worker and accustomed to being in the midst of someone else’s crisis, bereavement or life changing situation. Now I have found other ways to try and support others. I still work part time in Pastoral Care and while I was furloughed I spent time phoning and emailing those I temporarily could not visit. I am also in touch with fellow parishioners and neighbours and have been very aware of the vulnerability and also the resilience, faith and courage of many I am contacting.
I have learned a lot about the daily courage of most people, particularly older people.
Many older people who are housebound have a wealth, wisdom and freedom of faith which is an anchor in the centre of the Church.
A lot of priests are now older and shielded and when our churches open again fully I hope that more, younger lay people will feel empowered to offer their gifts for parish communities and that their skills and fresh outlook will be considered and valued. And it is important to let younger people come forward, feel empowered and take their place at the forefront, as they are the future….
Roller Coaster of Emotions I have been very aware of the ups and downs of coping with the challenges of the Virus in everyday life. Sometimes we can feel relieved to be well, safe, taking the struggles of family and friends in our stride. I am enjoying the extra time to read, walk, watch TV and reflect on the many spiritual resources on the internet.
At other times we might feel anxious, sad and despondent. But this is natural and it is important to be aware of our mood and take care of ourselves, as well as others.
For a helpful article on how we can cope with this roller coaster, click HERE
Mass For those of us who attend Mass in we have needed to find ways of “attending” on the internet or phone. I know that many without a computer have read their missals, followed the Mass and the daily readings at home.
My own parish hasn’t been streaming Mass and our sister parish started a pre-recorded Mass after a few weeks. I started off watching “live” Masses at Leeds and Liverpool Cathedrals and eventually found a parish in Leicester where my mother lives. Although I was watching from 100 miles away I felt welcomed by a pastoral, inclusive parish priest who gave us interesting, supportive and inspiring homilies and prayers and the woman organist played her music and choir recordings that linked to the themes of the day. I haven’t missed receiving Communion as much as I thought I would, and I think my understanding of Eucharist has widened. At a time of feeling powerless to alter events I have mostly felt the presence of God in amidst the suffering and grief of so many people.
For details of where you can find Mass and prayers online click HERE
Pope Francis stood in an empty St Peter’s Square in Rome on the 27th March and said:
“This is a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to the Lord and others.”
Living in the moment
I concluded my first Reflection at the end of March with the thought that I hoped I,- we,- might be able to live more in the present: rather than yearning for the past – what might have been – or worry excessively about the future. I think more than ever that it is important to engage in and value the present.
Julian of Norwich, (here quoted by Joan Chittister, in ‘The Gift of Years -Growing Old Gracefully’ DLT London 2008) said that in the acorn she was holding is everything that ever was.
And Joan Chittister writes, “In that tiny burst of life were all the elements of all the life in the world. In this moment is the now of life, is everything we have ever been and will become. And it is calling us, now, to be that to its fullness, and even more.”
Revd. Tom Lusty, LCI member and Vicar at St Giles, Bramhope reflects on ministry spent as a full-time hospice chaplain in the context of Covid-19.
Given the five years I spent inhabiting a hospice on a more or less daily basis I now know that death isn’t all that bad. It can sometimes be protracted and exhausting for all concerned. But even in such circumstances a good death is possible. With a good death there is a tangible sense of completeness, of dying with integrity.
To be honest I did not spend a great deal of time talking about death at the hospice beyond using euphemisms for it. For some of the nurses heaven was their euphemism of choice for death: “Gladys has gone to heaven now – God help them all up there”. I did speak, however, about my Christian faith when invited to do so, and the opportunities that came my way to speak about resurrection hope were considerable.
Within our tiny specialist world hospice chaplains have developed a repertoire of material that enables people to prepare spiritually for their own dying. Three resources that were and remain helpful to me are Mud and Stars, which gave me the theology, Tom Gordon’s A Need for Living which gave me the metaphors, and John O’Donohue’s Benedictus which gave me everything else: when there is nothing else you can do, you can always bless. That is a powerful thing to be left with – if you can bless sublimely, even better.
Dying is not about so much anguish and forsakenness. A good death is a movement towards integration – from “dislocation to relocation, from disorientation to re-orientation, from disintegration to re-integration” as Mud and Stars puts it. Part of a wider crucifixion/resurrection dynamic where we are always on the lookout for resurrection.
The cover photo of a book by Tom Gordon entitled New Journeys Now Begin depicts the access path to north beach on the Island of Iona. The inscription reads “No bikes beyond this point”. For each of us there will come a point where we have to relinquish the bike to go on the next stage of the journey. Getting off the bike can be painful because we get used to cycling everywhere. The more in life we can put the bike down and enjoy the view, the better prepared we will be for that moment in life when we will each have to “say goodbye to the bike”. As it were. This is a metaphor. A metaphor for resurrection.
As well as using metaphors a lot a group of hospice chaplains adopted a mnemonic as a helpful way into conversations about dying. The HEALER model goes like this:
H is for Hope – what takes people in a trajectory away from despair.
E is for Exploring Feelings – encouraging people to articulate their feelings.
A is for Adjustment to Loss – exploring how significant loss is transcended.
L is Looking Back – doing a life review: anything significant left unresolved?
The E and the R stand for Existential and Religious issues – some people are terrified of death for reasons that go beyond fear of the physical process of dying. I put that under ‘Existential’. Religion comes last of all. That is healthy because it says not all our needs are religious ones. We may choose to express our grounds for hope in religious terms but never exclusively so.
The HEALER mnemonic provides us with six different prompts as a helpful way into a conversation about dying. These prompts are not to be tackled exhaustively in chronological order (imagine how awful that would be) but rather as a means of focussing on some of the ways in which the conversation might go.
Given that Easter this year coincides with the beginning of the six to eight week peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK using prompts from this mnemonic might be helpful during that time if we wanted to reflect on our own mortality. Devoting a little space to reflect on our own dying (say ten minutes, once a week) will certainly make us more open to engage with others who may be starting out on the process of the end of life’s journey.
When someone asks “what hymns are you having for your funeral?” a closed response “goodness, I have never thought of that” may not always be adequate. A more open-ended, personal response to the question might well allow the questioner to fulfil a need to talk openly about death.
In any Christian model of spiritual preparation for dying you can’t leave out the letting go …and the leaping. John O’Donohue describesthe daily handing over of one’s life as the act of awakening and surrender. The possibility of this daily practising of such a hand over, however we may choose to do it, of our lives into the life of God may well be what makes us most Christ-like.
Each morning we awaken to the light… each night we surrender to the dark… Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen.
John O’Donoghue, Anam Cara
The HEAL(ER) mnemonic was devised by Revd Linda Elliott, at one time Chaplain at Thorpe Hall Hospice in Peterborough.
Books mentioned in this article:
Mud and Stars: The Report of a Working Party on the Impact of Hospice Experience on the Church’s Ministry of Healing