As we enter December, I was planning to write an essay filled with Christmas music and good cheer, an essay evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of this special time of year—the aroma of breads, pies, turkey; the sounds of holiday parades and familiar seasonal music; the appearance of decorated trees, lighted houses, and streets; heartwarming movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.”
Yet other images intrude, others voices interrupt. We are entering our second Advent and Christmas season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are in a much better place than we were a year ago as people have been vaccinated and have continued to engage in behavior that mitigates the spread of the disease (for example, masking when gathered in larger groups), too many continue to ignore public health guidance. In Michigan and Minnesota where I currently serve as bishop, both states are experiencing a fourth surge of COVID, leading the nation in new cases. The same social media that connects and entertains provides fertile ground for public health misinformation. Our deep political divisions continue to have a negative impact on our virus response.
Two recent court cases have highlighted our ongoing struggles with race, division, and violence. I have appreciated the quieter analytic voices that have provided context for the jury verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse. And I hear the voices of those who wonder if a similar verdict would have been reached had this been a young person of color. I would also not want us to forget the utter tragedy of this entire situation: Protests over a police shooting devolved into violence and random destructiveness. Into this tinder box comes a 17-year-old carrying an assault-style weapon. Regardless of the verdict, there are two people dead. There are multiple levels of tragedy here.
Also dead is a young Georgian man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black. The three white men responsible for his killing have been convicted of murder. Such a verdict would have been more difficult to imagine 60 years ago given the racial dynamics. There is progress, and that many were surprised by the verdict is an indication that there remains work to be done. I think of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his final book “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community”: “America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions…The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it” (pages 5, 12).
As I hear these more challenging voices, I have not forgotten about lights, bells, parades, parties, and the good cheer of this season. From a favorite song of mine: “Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year, Christmas time is here.” These seasons in the church year, Advent and Christmas, hold together difficulty and possibility, the realities of brutality and beauty, weeping and wonder, hopes and fears.
When Christmas comes later this month, we will celebrate that light, grace, hope, joy, peace, and love arrive into the world, break into it and break through all that might get in the way. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3b-5).
In this time before Christmas, the season of Advent, we assume attitudes of watching and waiting. We light candles for hope, peace, love, and joy, celebrating where we find them, dedicating ourselves to actions that cultivate them, and knowing that we live in a world where we still watch and wait for their full embodiment.
In Advent and Christmas we hold together the now and not yet. We celebrate justice done, joy shared, peace accomplished, reconciliation achieved, grace felt, beauty displayed, love embodied. We recognize that the world is not yet filled with justice, joy, peace, reconciliation, grace, beauty, and love but remains mired in and marred by injustice, heartbreak, dissension, division, pain, terror, unkindness. We recognize that we live in a time when the light shines in the darkness. The darkness is real. Yet we know light breaks in, that finally the light is stronger and someday the light will overcome. We live in this tension between the now and the not yet, and we live toward that newer world. We celebrate where it breaks in, even now. We dedicate ourselves to its realization, trusting that God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit works in us and through us toward this newer world.
And if during this season we choose to pay more attention to the aroma of breads, pies, turkey; the sounds of holiday parades and familiar seasonal music; the appearance of decorated trees, lighted houses and streets; heartwarming movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” I celebrate that. We need some encouragement to keep working toward the not yet now.
Blessed Advent and merry Christmas on this now and not-yet joyful journey.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church