Today, as November ends and December begins, across the UK the numbers of people affected by COVID19 have been rising dramatically. Even now, we are hoping the recent lockdown may have slowed the spread of the virus. While the emergence of possible vaccines is giving us some cautious reason for optimism, we know that it will be a long time before we are out of the woods. The situation in Cambridgeshire is a microcosm of the national picture.
We’ve heard about the different areas of life in our county: hospitals – especially intensive care units – in danger of being overwhelmed; schools constantly having to reorganise their ways of working; some businesses facing imminent insolvency or bankruptcy with employees being made redundant whilst others are so busy that they don’t have time to think; prisoners being locked up almost around the clock; police officers trying to understand and implement frequently changing regulations; and local government officials battling with ever increasing demands on rapidly dwindling resources. And there will be others known to each one of us.
Although the present circumstances are unprecedented in our recent history, it is times of stress and trauma that underline the need for someone who can be ‘present’ for those who are struggling with the pressures of life; someone who can offer listening ears and words of encouragement and guidance. And that, surely, is what the ministry of chaplaincy has always been about?
How can those who are chaplains fulfil that ministry when the pressures on host organisations are so great, and not just financial pressures, although those will be a factor. There are so many challenges for chaplains who want to walk alongside those in the various workplaces where they have a role. But it is not something that is easy to do at the moment, when people have to socially distance and wear masks that muffle their voices. You can’t have a confidential discussion with someone when you have to shout through a face covering to someone who is six feet away.
It seems as though the pressure on government to ‘move things on’ has been amplified because of the desire to be able to celebrate Christmas in some sort of traditional fashion. But, deep down, probably most of us realise that there will be no return to that which was there before. In the notable opening words of (one-time Peterborough resident) L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between:
‘The past is a different country: they do things differently there.’L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between
The normal in future is going to be very different to the way it was.
Over the past few months many people will have started to interact with their doctor, their supermarket, their bank, their children’s school, even their place of faith or worship, via the medium of the internet. However, even as these interactions take place, there is a recognition that there is something missing. No matter how good our electronic device nor how fast our broadband connection is, there is something of the muffled shouting through a face covering about it. We are rediscovering that it is the personal contact, the soothing voice, the fleeting smile, the gentle touch on the arm, that makes all the difference.
Today, as November ends and December begins, we are starting the season of Advent. Contrary to popular belief, Advent is not about putting up the Christmas decorations and opening calendars to find bits of chocolate. For Christians, Advent is a time for anticipating Christ’s return to earth, for desiring an immanent God to be present in this corner of creation.
The great German theologian Dietrich Boenhoffer, who was tortured and died in a Nazi concentration camp for speaking out against Hitler’s horrors, said that “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
If there ever was a time for people to be troubled in soul and to know themselves to be poor and imperfect it is now. But Advent is also surely the time for us to sing:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
A prayer: Almighty God – we hold before you at this Advent season those who hold roles as chaplains in our county; those whose desire it is to walk alongside people with a whole variety of needs. Compassionate God, may our chaplains be aware of your firm and constant embrace as they minister to those they stand with at this difficult time. Amen.