Guest blogger Rebecca Calderone shares a reflection for the first Sunday of Advent. Rebecca is a chaplain at St. Benedict Senior Community. Read more about her in her bio at the end of her post.
There are some patients that I will always remember. Maggie* is one of them. I remember clearly the first time I met Maggie. I walked into her private room looking over the gardens at St. Benedict’s Senior Community and she was sitting at a table working on a puzzle. Learning that I was the chaplain, she put her puzzle piece down and used her walker to transfer herself into her recliner chair. Maggie was recently admitted to hospice. I was glad to see that she was still moving around on her own and talking with ease despite the use of oxygen. This indicated to me that she might be on hospice for a more extended length of time, and I always appreciated when I had the opportunity to build longer relationships with my hospice patients. We spent that first visit getting to know each other and she shared at length about her life story. I listened intently, honored as always, to be the recipient of the telling of one’s story.
Over the following nine months or so I visited Maggie about every one to two weeks. She stayed relatively strong most of the time leading up to the end of her life. One day while visiting I said to Maggie, “You’ve been on hospice for quite some time now. What has it been like for you to know you’re in this stage of life where the end is coming near?” Maggie shared about the challenges of waiting. She shared about how full her life had been, that she felt in good relation with those she loved, and that her faith was strong. She was ready to go, and yet her time had not come. She shared about what a trial this was for her, as well as the blessings she experienced in each moment, knowing that it may be her last.
Waiting for death is in many ways akin to waiting for the birth of new life. December 3 marks the beginning of the Advent season. We enter into a time of repentance, waiting and anticipation. The prophet Isaiah, who we will hear from often throughout the season of Advent, tells us,
“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, NRSV)
There is no path to light, except through darkness, and without each other neither light nor darkness could exist. Darkness does not, however, have to mean the ugly or the evil. There is beauty in the dark moments of our life, beauty in the seasons of waiting.
The beauty of darkness comes in the form of hope and opportunity. Advent is an opportunity for all of us to turn ourselves toward the light of Christ. Maggie was a beautiful example of a woman who embraced the darkness of her period of waiting. There were challenges and there was pain as she transitioned through stages of her dying process. But there was also hope, which grew out of the assurance of Christ’s light being there to guide her from one life into the next.
As we enter into this season of Advent, I challenge each of us to lean into, and explore the darker areas of our lives. This isn’t an easy thing for any of us, and there are plenty of distractions with lights, presents, and decorations that keep us from remembering this season as a time of waiting, rather than already being a time of celebration. But it’s not just difficult because of distractions, it’s difficult because it is counter-cultural (especially here in central Minnesota!). How have you been taught to identify your emotions? To process your losses? I’m of a younger generation that is taught much more to be aware of emotions. And yet, engaging emotion and letting myself exist with it remains a challenge. This challenge is part of the core human experience that we are all called to participate in. Just as light and darkness cannot exist without each other, we cannot have inner peace without also knowing inner unrest.
Advent is about so much more than happy anticipation, it is a real opportunity to reflect inward. The gift of Christ’s birth can be more fully appreciated only if we enter into that process. Reflect back on your year. Reflect on what losses in your life still have some lingering hurt. For some people those pains may be deep, with the loss of a close relationship, or like Maggie, losses of independence and functioning. For others the losses, though still challenging and real, may be losses related to a happier event (like the losses that come after getting married as you transition into what it’s like to live together and share your whole life with another person). Learning to recognize what is a loss and to be aware of the inner journey through that is a gift of the human experience, and one that Advent calls forth in us.
The challenges of this season will be greatly rewarded. Of this we can be assured. One of the beauties of Advent, similar to what we go through during the season of Lent as we await the resurrection, is that we know the end of the story. We know that there is light that will shine into our darkest places. We know that new life exists in the birth of Christ. Christ comes, not to take away the pain of the journey, but to be our light and guide along the way.
May each of us experience the gift of turning inward this Advent. May we have the courage to face our pains, and the strength and wisdom to allow ourselves to live in that place. And when our challenges become overwhelming, may we turn our eyes to the light of Christ that is already shining at the end of this season. Peace to you on your Advent journey.
*Name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality.