Nathan Kirkpatrick: It's time to talk about Advent in a pandemic

iStock / Brian A. Jackson

If congregations begin to consider what Advent and Christmas might look like online, they will have time to imagine and plan together, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

A friend reports that the corner drugstore started stocking Halloween candy the week of Aug.10. For a moment, let’s ignore that Halloween is more than two months away. Instead, let’s think about that decision given what Halloween might look like in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s doubtful that many parents will feel comfortable having their children go house to house, fishing candy out of big bowls offered by complete strangers. How many hands will have smushed each mini Twix bar? Not a comforting thought for the COVID-conscious among us.

It’s also doubtful that many of us who have had the luxury of making our homes into sanctuaries during the pandemic will now want to open our doors to strangers screaming “Trick or treat!” either. I may deliver a few Halloween goody bags to those I know and love, but it’s hard for me to imagine that I will be giving out Reese’s Cups to costume-clad children at my front door this year.

Yet the drugstore is stocking up for the holiday as if everything were proceeding as usual.

Hearing about candy-stocked shelves reminded me that it’s about this time of year when I start receiving Advent catalogs in the mail. Books, candles, calendars, sheet music, pageant scripts, sacred knickknacks -- all for sale, all promising to be in my hands well before the first Sunday of Advent. Yet it’s also hard for me to imagine that we will be celebrating Advent as usual this year. All the things that fill those catalogs seem perfectly suited to a world that isn’t currently here.

A colleague posted to Facebook last week that his congregation has already decided to suspend all in-person worship and activities well into January 2021. It’s too risky for too many, they decided. Even outdoors. Even with masks and physical distancing. I hear others mulling similar decisions -- some debating canceling in-person events until early January, some until Ash Wednesday, others until Holy Week 2021.

They do not want to exclude from sharing in worship those who have preexisting conditions or those who are elderly. A hybrid setup allowing small groups of the healthy, young and comfortable to gather in person while others are left to watch a livestream from home feels like something less than Christian community. (We’ve learned something significant about the experience of many of our homebound parishioners during this time -- specifically, how physical distance can compound spiritual and emotional isolation.)

That said, it’s not beyond imagining that we may be able to offer some kind of in-person worship responsibly in December. Maybe COVID-19 will slow its spread. Maybe flu season will delay its arrival. Maybe December will be warm for much of the country, making outdoor services possible. Maybe researchers will discover that belting out the “Hallelujah” chorus is not a COVID-spreading activity. Maybe we will still sing “Silent Night” while holding up beeswax tapers in a darkened chapel. Maybe.

Yet I, for one, am growing weary of the emotional whiplash of “the COVID maybe,” the perpetual back-and-forth between hoping and planning to gather in person and then seeing that delayed for another two, four or six weeks -- or postponed indefinitely. I appreciate the clarity of my colleague’s congregation: everything in-person will be held online well into January.

That allows two things to happen. First, it allows space and time for grief. As with Holy Week and Easter, there will be considerable grief about physically distanced celebrations of Advent and Christmas. But second, such clarity allows us to move from the weight of that loss to the hope of possibility -- from lament to creativity.

By beginning conversations now about what Advent and Christmas online could look like, we can harness the imagination of our congregations. Most of us will need that help. Almost every clergyperson and worship leader I have talked with in the last two months has described feeling exhausted, with little, if any, creative energy left. We will need others to help us dream what’s possible and help us make it happen. As this year has proved, it takes the gifts of the whole church for us to be the church.

In that same conversation about Halloween candy, my friend mentioned that she has been thinking a lot about Advent wreaths. She’s going to propose to her pastor that the church mobilize to deliver all the necessary wreath-making supplies to each household in time for the first Sunday of Advent. Let people and families make their own wreaths and light them as they watch the church’s services on Zoom. It’s a way that they can be together even if distanced.

That’s one idea. What will your congregation imagine?