Nights in Advent are dark and very long. In a drafty old church in Kensington Market, people sit below the dim stained glass, six feet apart, eating from cardboard containers, while the parish deacon, in gown and mask, circulates with news and conversation, and two of us in the kitchen prepare meals for the next morning, washing our chapped hands over and over. With liturgy now largely on-line, the building’s role is to shelter, to feed, to hold within its walls a space for the lost. A cave in the rocks, a tent on the fields of hope. Waiting for the kingdom.
For some of us, the Christmas we anticipate will be the strangest we have ever known, without most of our usual practices of community and worship, without carols or choirs, without the ability to visit parents, grandparents, siblings. But for some, it will be very much like any other Christmas, alone, outside of the celebrations, or maybe part, willingly or unwillingly, of the unchosen spare festivities of the nearest shelter or respite centre.
Despite a brief sense of social solidarity, despite all the signs saying, “We’re all in this together,” the pandemic has in fact worsened existing inequalities at all levels. Large corporations have seen their profits skyrocket, while small independent businesses collapse. The building of pipelines on Indigenous land has been rapidly designated an “essential service.” The bulk of the increased burden of childcare and unpaid domestic labour has fallen on women. The burden of high-risk, poorly compensated work, and the inevitable illness and death, has fallen mostly on racialized people. It is possible to look at the maps, week by week, and see the virus migrate from the lakefront condos of Toronto to the struggling northwestern suburbs; while in the meantime, homeless people have largely taken the situation into their own hands and set up encampments in parks and green spaces around the city, so that they can maintain limited and safer social bubbles. The spring lockdown has been described, brutally but not without some truth, as “middle-class people hiding while poor people brought them things.”
And yet, out on the roads at the height of the first wave, along with those given no real choice – the warehouse workers, PSWs, cleaners, couriers, and retail clerks – there were also the riders of the People’s Pantry and the Bike Brigade, delivering free food from Mississauga to Scarborough and beyond. There were, and still are, the staff and volunteers of those drop-ins and food banks that have stayed open: the Anishnawbe Health Bus doing mobile testing for the most vulnerable; the Encampment Support Network bringing supplies and care to the people living in tents. A band of ragged Magi, following a beacon of hope. And in their own homes, the Sewing Army, making thousands of free masks, scrub caps and gowns, including most of those now being worn by the volunteers at my own parish’s drop-in and meal programs.
And, as well, the data analysts, the investigative journalists, and the tireless activists and advocates who have ensured that this crisis has been an opportunity to make visible the chasms of inequity in our society, rather than papering them over – who keep drawing attention to those few central things such as stable indoor shelter, access to handwashing, safe employment conditions and paid sick leave, and to the vulnerability created in our whole society when some members are deprived of these.
In the long nights of Advent, we remember that we are waiting for one who came to us in isolation and displacement, who lived in obscurity, who was tortured and executed finally by the powers of the day. And if Christ’s presence and Christ’s kingdom breaks in fragments into our reality now, it is in these obscure and hidden acts by the small people of the world, in the heart of empire or out on the fringes. And it is in the work of those who can learn the lessons of the tents and the bicycles and the darkness, and articulate them, over and over if necessary, to our contemporary powers. Much of what the Church might normally do, we cannot do now. But perhaps we can rise to this moment.
There are days when I am afraid that “building back better” is too extreme a hope, and that the very best we might manage, if we all insist hard enough and long enough, is building back something not greatly worse. But Advent is a promise. That the arc of time will turn, that the light which has been born will be born once more, maybe in strange hidden places we never expected. That perhaps we can still learn to love each other and our endangered earth, to share more justly, to demand a new vision.