Chun said she relates to the darkness people felt in the scriptures before Jesus’ arrival. Her husband lost his job earlier this year, and someone recently stole their bikes.
“With covid and the animosity in our country, there’s such heaviness right now,” she said. “There’s that longing and the hope that Advent brings, knowing that Christ will come again.”
And this year, the story of Mary and Joseph anticipating Jesus’ arrival has become even more poignant for Chun since she is five months pregnant, expecting her own son.
With more time to read, Chun is working her way through a book called “Honest Advent” by Scott Erickson on how Advent has been desensitized and often told through a male’s perspective, when so much of the Christmas story is about the female body and pregnancy.
“It’s given me fresh eyes to parts of the Advent story and what it means to wait and anticipate,” said Chun, who grew up in a church that didn’t celebrate Advent.
Chun’s Advent practices have helped her to reconnect with her close friend from high school. Katie Welch, who met Chun when they both lived in Richmond but now lives in Dallas, has each night this month invited a different family to Zoom with hers and to light Advent candles and read from a devotional. Chun, her husband were guests one night.
As the two families talked about Advent, Chun, who works in international relief and development, turned her computer around to show the Welch clan her collection of about 40 Nativity scenes from all over the world. The two families read from the Gospel of Luke while Welch’s two fidgeting boys, ages 10 and 6, listened on the couch with their miniature schnauzer Jessilyn and discussed the question: “Who is Jesus to you?”
“God is with us in the darkness,” Chun said. “Jesus is our shepherd, and he guides us and comforts us.”
Then Welch opened up the Advent calendar and her sons split a piece of chocolate.
For many pastors, Christmas is often the busiest season of the year, but many will remain at home. Pastor Rich Villodas, who would normally be juggling Christmas potlucks, several Advent services and his daughter’s “Nutcracker” performances, said his church will forgo its Christmas Eve party of about 500 people.
Villodas is head of New Life Fellowship in Queens, which is located about a mile from Elmhurst Hospital, considered the epicenter of the pandemic when the virus spread through New York City earlier this year. He said his congregation, which heard wailing sirens throughout the spring, has a collective sense of anticipation.
“We’re all waiting for something, for vaccines, for the pandemic to be over, for hope and healing to come,” he said.
Villodas said he has tried to help his congregation to set up rituals and contemplative spaces to learn how to anticipate by focusing on Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“Advent is a great time to focus on what Mary teaches us,” he said. Mary’s “Magnificat” from the Gospel of Luke, in which she praises what God has done for the nation of Israel, is often read in churches across the country during December. Mary “knows how to contemplate deeply and prophecy boldly,” Villodas said. “She’s a great model of faith for this season.”
During a year of sickness from the virus and racial justice protests after the death of George Floyd, Danté Stewart, a writer and preacher based in Augusta, Ga., said he is reimagining the meaning of faith and hope. He said he believes there is a danger in the Christmas period, when people can feel wistful and hope life just gets back to normal.
“Oftentimes we talk about hope; it’s not found in the liberation of bodies but in a nostalgic imagination of when life was much better,” said Stewart, who wrote a devotional last year on Advent.
This year, Stewart said, he plans to wake up on Christmas morning, run a few miles, cook some food with his wife and enjoy time with their 2-year-old.
The pandemic, Stewart said, has chipped away the expectations many Americans hold about their lives.
“We have that expectation to perform, to be something, to do something, to imagine something,” he said. “Covid has destroyed the life of expectations.”
During this season, Sister Joan Chittister was supposed to be on a speaking tour in Australia. Instead, she is in her Benedictine monastery in Erie, Pa., lighting candles and performing rituals that go back to the fifth century.
“Advent says, live! Bring life to everyone around you!” she said. “Don’t worry about the tension between faith and doubt; that’ll work itself out.”
Chittister sees the vaccine distribution as “the great Advent gift,” a sign of hope that the virus will be defeated.
“When this is over, you’ll see some of the most wonderful parties, full of tears and good food,” she said. “We talk about the fullness of life. It gets us to ask us questions about ourselves: What star am I following? When I look at my life, how am I spending it?”
Living in the suburbs of New York City, the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, is no longer traveling and speaking like she once did and is focused on getting three meals on the table each day. Rutledge, whose widely praised volume of sermons on Advent was published in a book, is discouraged to see how many of the Advent themes in contemporary churches are toned down to be about love, joy and peace — instead of death, judgment, heaven and hell.
“Americans tend to be very upbeat, always looking on the sunny side, denying death and darkness, looking for every conceivable way to avoid the unpleasant things of life,” Rutledge said. “What’s necessary to see the light of the candle is the darkness surrounding it. In order to grasp the depths of hope, we need to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.”
While many churches — including Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Anglican and Lutheran — formally observe Advent in their services, many Christians, Rutledge said, are latching on to Advent calendars and wreaths as fads.
“Advent means that evil and sin will be confronted, judged, condemned and destroyed. It will mean redemption,” she said. “This is not just good news. It’s the greatest news that has ever been proclaimed. It’s the hope by which we live. It’s the opposite of sentimental.”