I remember an Advent when I was struggling with infertility and found it difficult to enter into a season that anticipates the birth of a baby. During church on those Sunday evenings leading up to Christmas day, a different family—a mother, a father, and at least one child—lit the Advent wreath candles and read a Scripture about the coming of our Savior. While I sat in the dim light of the sanctuary and observed those who had that for which I longed, other parents whispered to their children, answering questions about the wreath and the candles or asking the rowdier little ones to settle down. I saw my pregnant friends sprinkled throughout the congregation whose desires to become mothers were being fulfilled, their bellies full and round. I knew Emmanuel had come. I believed Jesus would return. But I didn’t know if I would ever have a child of my own. I wanted to believe God was always good even if I never became a mother, but I was full of doubt. And my doubt made me lonely.
Christians can find solace in our relationship with God, fellowship with other Christians, and witnesses from Scripture who assure us God will never leave us or forsake us, and yet Christian faith isn’t an inoculation against loneliness and isolation. Indeed, when it comes to this particular suffering, I have often wondered if the mature Christian has an especially deep capacity to notice her loneliness. Does a life of spiritual discipline, Scripture, and truth-telling open our eyes to see the ways that we are always, on this side of eternity, restless for the true intimacy and union that await us?
My faith certainly hasn’t shielded me from loneliness. I’ve known different forms of loneliness since I was a child. Observing the church year has become one buoy that holds me up when I’m overwhelmed with feelings of unbelonging. It reminds me that my life is part of the larger story of God’s creation, redemption, and restoration. “The Christian year, by its rhythms, allows us an opportunity to both look back and remember the story of Christ, and to look forward to its ultimate conclusion,” said Bobby Gross in an interview about his book, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. “The Christian year participates in that same sacramental pattern that God instituted and blessed for the people in the Old Testament and the New Testament, to help us remember in a very active way and anticipate in a way that brings grace into our present spiritual experience.”
I don’t follow the church year with the intent of diminishing my loneliness. I observe it to know more intimately the life of Jesus, his work in the lives of those whom he has rescued and redeemed, and the hope of the “not yet” on this side of heaven. I also enter into the liturgical seasons because they help us wait, lament, hope, celebrate, and acknowledge the full spectrum of the life of the Christian and the life of the church. But one blessing I have received from engaging the church year and its rituals is an increased sense of belonging to myself, others, and God.
Rituals can enhance our affiliation with fellow group members, increase a sense of group loyalty and trust, and produce stronger feelings of connection because they help to integrate our private and public lives. When we partake in rituals, we put words, actions, and meaning around our beliefs. Rituals also help us learn and share cultural knowledge that defines our group’s priorities and creates a sense of closeness because they help us interact with others who share our beliefs. The same is true when we observe the church year. Many of our liturgical rituals are performed in community with our families, friends, neighbors, and members of our local church congregations. As we embark on a collective observance of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and the other liturgical seasons, we are linked with others who are observing the church year in similar ways. While we light Advent wreath candles on the four Sundays before Christmas or receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we know scores of Christians all over the world are doing the same thing and generations of Christians before us have done the same thing throughout a large portion of the church’s existence.
Observing the church year also allows us to feel closer to the Triune Lord. As we explore the stories of Jesus and the truths of the gospel of grace in the Scripture readings and rituals that unfold throughout the church year, we learn more of who God is and more of who we are. When we view time primarily through the lens of the liturgical seasons, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us clarity regarding the movement of God in our lives, the church, and the world. Every year we cycle through the various seasons and see how our lives are intertwined with the life of Jesus brings more invitations to experience greater spiritual intimacy. We walk the well-worn paths again and again and know God will meet us along the way because he has shown up before and has told us in Matthew 28:20, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In my own life, I have also found that practicing the church year connects me to past versions of myself when I engaged time and my faith in similar ways. While I am asking God how I should observe an upcoming Lenten season, I may remember where I spiritually was during Lent the previous year and reflect on what has changed and what has stayed the same. I hear and read the familiar stories about Jesus as he approached the cross and am reminded that while my circumstances change, the truths of the gospel remain the same. When I pull out the bright red tablecloth that adorns our dining table on Pentecost, I think about the very real power of the Holy Spirit that is active in my life and in the church, interceding for us, comforting us, and redirecting our attention to Jesus and the gospel of grace.
Despite the strong communal ties reinforced by following the church year, this sense of belonging won’t always insulate Christians from feeling lonely. When we have lost loved ones through death or other forms of separation, we may feel more alone during seasons and celebrations we used to share with others. When we are in a season of feeling far away from God, we may feel guilt and shame because we think we should be more enthusiastic about observing Advent or Christmas or Easter. The widow or divorcee reading a well-meaning devotional that uses language of families might feel she doesn’t belong in the ritual. And when we elevate our participation in the church year in ways that minimize our communion with other Christians and our common gospel foundation, those who don’t feel led to observe the church year might sense that those of us who do think less of them and their faith.
On Easter Sunday a few years ago during a period of significant suffering, I wept all day. In addition to the isolation I felt because of my circumstances, I was also grieving my inability to celebrate the resurrection. Yet, I still had confidence in the test of time and confidence in the saints from many eras who companioned me in my Christian journey, whose witness reminded me of the generations of Christians who have observed the church year in order to know God and root their own stories to Jesus’ story.
As we consider Jesus throughout the course of the year and give our attention to his life, death, and resurrection, we can ask God to help us see those whom Christ sees. Who is suffering, grieving, lost, or alone? How can we invite others to join us as we observe and celebrate the life and work of Jesus? How can we have conversations with other Christians during Advent or Lent or Ordinary Time about how the current season is or isn’t helping us connect with ourselves, others, and God? How can we be, as James K.A. Smith wrote, a people of memory and expectation while “praying for and looking forward to a coming kingdom that will break in upon our present as a thief in the night”?
I will continue to ask myself these questions and follow the path of those who have gone before me while I discover the answers. This year, on the first Sunday of Advent, I did what I have done the past several years. I woke before the rest of my family, possibly before the rest of my street. I walked down the hall to my living room and dining area. As the sun was beginning to rise and offer itself to the darkness of the night, I lit the first candle in the Advent wreath. I basked in the glow of that one purple candle and contemplated this season that helps me remember Jesus’ birth and wait for his second coming when we will face the fullness of our true belonging.
Then I went to church with my family. We worshiped with our local congregation using a liturgy designed especially for this day. We sang hymns of waiting, heard the appointed Scripture readings including Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 about his return, and prayed the Collect for Advent Sunday, Rite One from the Book of Common Prayer, that says :
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Throughout the remaining days leading up to Christmas, I will continue to view this season as a fresh opportunity to give my attention to the life and work of Jesus that has ushered in the light and pushed away the works of darkness. And I will anticipate another year full of familiar readings and rituals that might help me connect more with myself, others, and God.
Charlotte Donlon is a writer, spiritual director trainee, and host of the Hope for the Lonely podcast. Her first book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, will be published by Fortress Press in November 2020. Learn more at CharlotteDonlon.com.
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