I learn the deep meaning of Advent from people who hear voices all during the year. For many people who experience lifelong mental illness, sorting out the voice of hope and love during the holidays becomes very challenging. Last Advent, I spent some intentional time with several people who regularly teach me the complexities of living in our culture and struggling to hear the voice of God.
The paradoxes between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day are legion. Last year on the day after Thanksgiving, the local news stations were reporting that the advertisements in the Oregonian newspaper weighed four and a half pounds. We were all expected to begin the season listening to the voice of consumerism, carrying the heavy load of a newspaper and the burden of purchasing gifts for loved ones. People living in poverty show me the problem of such expectations. Most people cannot afford such gifts. More importantly, most people suffering mental illness do not have loved ones to buy a gift for in the first place. Many families disown their members with chronic mental illness. Other families may be more supportive, but mental illness itself may cause a son or daughter, parent or spouse to break off contact completely. People living on the streets or in low-income housing have little family support and few friends.
I listen to the voice of the Advent gospels with a new ear. I hear the adult voice of Jesus telling us to be watchful and alert. These words get wrapped around much apprehension for many people who hear voices telling them that they are not worthy of Jesus. So many people become agitated and anxious because they feel they do not live up to Jesus’ standard already. Hearing the voice of Jesus in Advent becomes difficult when people already live with a deep sense of unworthiness and depression. The voice of the beloved Savior eludes so many people.
John the Baptist cries out from the desert to prepare us for Christ’s second coming. His clear and sharp voice may also be interpreted in many other ways. For many people who suffer from post-trauma related conditions, John’s voice may bring much fear to their lives. They clench their muscles and cringe when a sudden voice calls out in the night or when there is a knock on the door. I learn to turn down the volume of John’s insistency to straighten up our lives. John wears minimal clothing and eats little food as do so many people who already live outside and survive the cold nights.
Advent articulates the many competing voices of despair and hope, darkness and light, loneliness and communion. These are the mix of emotions so many families face in preparing for the holidays and the coming of Christ. These are the voices our parish communities must help people discern and sort through. We need so desperately to find the voice of God in our lives and parishes. So many people long to sort through the competing and complicated voices that shout that purchasing material things will make us all happy. We need to help people find life amid the overwhelming expectations that every person is happy, joyful and fulfilled in every way. We must sort out for our children their ingrained sense of entitlement that they deserve every toy, gadget and European trip during the holiday season. This is the real work of our worshipping communities during the time between Thanksgiving and the end of the Christmas season.
A twenty-something college graduate stood in line to be anointed after Mass during Advent. I had spoken to him only one time before. He told me that his mental illness was getting worse. He stood in front of me sobbing, leaning his head on my shoulder. I tried with all my faith to find the words of an angel that greeted Mary “Do not be afraid.” So many people are unable to receive the consoling voices of scripture when the many voices inside them are so convincing. The message of fearlessness must be interpreted in every parish community in so many different ways during the Advent season. We all need the many angels of consolation and hope.
Last year at the conclusion of the Advent season, I noticed a sign posted in our parish office window. “On Wednesday, December 23 we will be distributing sleeping bags and backpacks.” I stood before the sign and started to cry. The sign was a reminder of how people were going to spend Christmas, alone in the cold. However, I was also grateful for the small step to provide something warm for people. Advent and life come wrapped in many unfortunate realities amid God’s voice of love.