Archive for December, 2020

The Holly and the Ivy

Today I received the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. It’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.

Here’s a song I recorded with my beautiful new Appalachian dulcimer, a gift from me (and with help from my Mum and stepdad) to me.

“Waiting for the light,” (Sermon, December 13th 2020)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

I arrived at the door of St. Jude’s Anglican care home, where I serve as chaplain, just before noon last Thursday. We are on outbreak protocol after some staff members and one resident tested positive for COVID-19. I’ve been restricted to the second floor special care unit staff cohort to minimize contamination between residents. My hours have been doubled, from two days a week to four.

I came into the breezeway, took off my cloth mask, sanitized my hands, put on a disposable surgical mask. Then, I buzzed to be let in, and was greeted by one of my supervisors, Susan.

She asked me how I was doing. I did the corona shrug. We’ve all done it. I asked her how she was.

“Much better now,” she said, and looked at me, over her mask, through her plastic goggles. “The vaccine is here.”

My heart fluttered. “In BC?”

“At VGH,” she said, and her voice broke.

We stood there looking tearfully at one another for a moment.

“I prayed the Serenity prayer today,” she said. “This week has been so hard and I needed something to ground me. I said ‘Amen,’ and then came in, and it was the first phone call I took.”

It’s been so easy to forget what good news feels like, so easy to become numb to the constant anxiety, cynicism, and fear, so easy to forget the promises we’ve been given.

And then, the clouds open, and a rainbow appears over a still drying earth.

The ocean parts, opening a path to freedom.

The exiled are led home after years in a foreign land.

Angels appear and set the night on fire.

But still, we must take care.

After Susan and I had our moment, she checked her clipboard and asked the same screening questions I’ve been asked entering St. Jude’s for the last four months. “Have you experienced any of the following symptoms since your last screening? Have you been tested for COVID-19 since your last screening?”

Once cleared, I descended to the space which housed our little chapel. It is now a storage space for PPE, and a women’s changing area for people starting their shifts. I went behind the screens and changed into the set of clothes I’d brought in a plastic bag, and the shoes that stay at work. I put my street clothes into that bag and then bagged all of that in another bag. I brought that to a set of cubbies, sanitized the spot where it would sit with a disinfectant wipe, and left it there. I put on the plastic face shield stored in the cupboard that once held only purificators and other linens and now also holds my prayer book and the reserved sacrament, because I can’t access the aumbry across the room as it’s hidden behind a tower of cardboard boxes containing disposal gowns and gloves.

Me in my PPE at St. Jude’s

I bring my small Celtic harp up to the second floor, where I play throughout the day in between gently trying to keep the elders in their rooms or at least apart from one another as much as possible until all have been tested for COVID-19. I wash my hands constantly, feeling bereft without my wedding ring, which I leave at home because hands are easier to wash when they are bare.

When I’m done for the day, I reverse the whole process.

The vaccine is a brilliant light, but it is not The Light.

It announces what is to come: the restoration of our lives. The small things, like going out to restaurants and movies, and the big things, like hugs and Holy Communion.

It is well worth celebrating during a year short on celebration, but like the flowers that are going to sleep for the winter, it will take time for true restoration to blossom.

John, the feral baptizer in the wilderness, who in this week’s Gospel is not described and is so matter-of-fact in his confession, will at the first say not who he is but who he isn’t.

“I am not the Messiah.”

The priests and Levites are puzzled, and who can blame them. “We asked who you were, not who you weren’t. Are you the liberator, the one who will herald the age of triumphant victory against the oppressor Rome?”

“No,” he says. And they’re more puzzled than ever!

Because he’s certainly acting like he is, baptizing and proclaiming the words of Isaiah. This is exactly what they were expecting to see.

But John is clear: This isn’t going to be what anyone expects. Later, in verse 31 of the same chapter, John admits that even he does not know the Messiah until he sees the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. Presumably Jesus looks like an ordinary person until this happens.

John, crying out in the wilderness for us to prepare the way, has good news to share…but he himself will not bring it about.

We’re all going to have to hold on a little longer.

Here, on the third Sunday of Advent, we’re teetering on the edge of the mystery that is coming. We’re bewitched by that one pink candle, which promises joy, and this year joy feels very far away indeed. After ten months of waiting, praying, longing, loneliness, tears, and rage, we’re convinced that the light we see is the end of lockdown, and yet like those priests and Levites, are flummoxed by this insistence of, “No, not yet. It’s coming. Not yet. We’re still in lockdown.”

The first reaction is surely bottomless annoyance, but we’re then given the beautifully cryptic gift of verse 27: “The one who is coming after me – I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

It would be one thing to be a priest or a Levite hearing this from a wild-eyed wanderer wearing a camel’s hair shirt and smelling of sweat and leftover honey. Even the most progressive among them probably thought anyone would be a step up from this weirdo.

It would be another thing, of course, to hear this as the kind of person who sought baptism from John. That would seem impressive, astonishing. And indeed, this is borne out in verse 35 as John points out Jesus to two of his disciples: Andrew and another who is unnamed. They are so enthralled when John points out Jesus that they immediately leave and follow him like a couple of lovesick teenagers! They even get tongue-tied when Jesus finally turns around and asks them what they’re looking for. It’s both funny and deeply compelling.

But we don’t have to imagine ourselves as confused Levites or infatuated fishermen.

Instead, perhaps on this day of joy and as yet unfulfilled longing, it’s not so much that we’re forced to wait just a little bit longer, like kids unable to sleep on a Christmas Eve that lasts years.

Perhaps it’s more that this week’s good news is that first tentative birdsong before the light begins to come back into the sky.

If this news gives us our first sign of hope, how much more will we be enthralled when that sun comes up, when that irresistible stranger passes by, when the arduous journey down from the hills comes to an end and we find ourselves at the doorway peeking in to see a gurgling child in a manger, exactly as the fiery messengers had told us?

John promises fulfillment, but also offers a warning: we have to be ready.

And that, of course, is what Advent is for.

Because even in the waiting, even in the impatience and the solitude, even in lockdown, there are moments of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Even in St. Jude’s, where care aides and nurses and cleaning staff scrub their hands raw and endure COVID-19 swab testing and lead confused elders out of the wrong rooms and try to instill wonder by pointing out the lights and Christmas trees set up outside on the deck rather than inside the house, I have seen them laugh and dance and walk with the elders, and heard elders sing with me, tell me stories, smile brilliant smiles.

Joy is all around us even in the most desolate of places, and how much more shall our joy be in the time to come.

Joy shall come, even to the wilderness of lockdown.