Love and loss in Advent

(Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)

A single candle gleams in a quiet church.

For Catholics and many other Christians, Advent began last week with the lighting of a candle. Advent is the time of expectation, of longing, of hope — preparing for the Christ child so long promised, prophesied and proclaimed. Four candles, one more lit each week as we come closer to Christmas.

I celebrated the first Sunday of Advent with the St. Lucy’s congregation in Syracuse, New York. The sanctuary was crowded; the mood was festive and ebullient even though for many it was their second day in church that weekend. The congregation celebrated funeral masses for two longtime, beloved members on Saturday. Many went to both services and were there again in their seats bright and early on Sunday morning.

The kiss of peace lasted for 10 minutes (I kid you not) with many people (not just the priest) working their way down the center aisle and back around the edges. The local deaf community worships here and the priest is accompanied by an interpreter. Business owners and the local elites, young families and elderly couples, the homeless and the very poor, lots and lots of children — the church is diverse in every sense of that word.

Often, a member of the congregation prepares the homily and everyone is always invited to take part in the Eucharist. Everyone! “Sinners Welcome,” proclaims a big sign above the entrance.

Alongside the beautiful stained glass windows and the statues of saints there are large black and white pictures of contemporary peacemakers like Kathy Kelly, Fr. John Dear, Bishop Tom Gumbleton and members of the congregation. Behind the altar on the right are pictures of Dad, Uncle Dan and Uncle Jerry.

My dad loved this church. During a storm 15 years ago or so St. Lucy’s sustained some damage, and while repairs were being made, masses were held in the gym across the street. We were all there and during the Lord’s Prayer—which is sung with fervor while standing, holding hands — I looked over at my dad and saw tears streaming down his face. “This is church as Jesus intended,” he said afterwards, wiping his face. It was one of the very few times I ever saw him cry.

Lots of churches are empty on Sunday morning, especially Catholic ones. My own Unitarian Universalist church in New London — a vibrant, gregarious and diverse congregation — is full of people who identify as “recovering Catholics.” This turning away from the church makes sense when the hierarchy marginalizes women and condemns gays and lesbians, fixates on issues like abortion at the expense of everything else, has derailed the beautiful promise of openness and welcome articulated by the Vatican II process, and is saddled with the ongoing crime and scandal of the cover-up of sexual exploitation and abuse by priests. Not much there to draw people away from their Sunday morning newspapers, cartoons and coffees.

But there are places like Saint Lucy’s all over the country — loci of little insurrections where the Gospel is read and lived, and the latest pronouncements of the bishops or the Vatican are heeded only in the rare instance when they converge with the living Word. Mostly these churches and faith communities are on the margins; I have visited churches like St. Lucy’s in Camden, N.J., Worcester, Mass., and elsewhere — old hulking buildings dwarfed by highway overpasses or surrounded by vacant buildings or located in desperately poor communities. They are full of hungry people on Sundays mornings — aching for meaning, for community, for perspective. They are fed. These churches are full, and not just one day a week. They are working churches that run schools and shelters and host AA meetings and birthday parties and basketball leagues and where people know they can always find an open heart and a listening ear.

I was so happy to be able to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent in such a place, amid such community. I needed it.

Philip Francis Berrigan, my father, died on December 6, 2002. Ten years ago yesterday. For me, each Christmas season since has been marked by that loss.

There is something magical (in the wondering rather than the wizarding sense of that word) about the Advent season. The days grow shorter, the light grows more precious and Christmas approaches as the rebirth of hope and joy amid real sorrow and longing for a father who is gone — at least in the here and now — forever.

Ten years ago, we celebrated the beginning of Advent just days before he died with a house church service attended by at least 60 people. We could hear Dad breathing — a labored, painful and uneven metronome to our prayer and fellowship — in the next room.

We continued celebrating for the rest of December, remembering his life. It was a life that held such rich contradiction — a son and brother, a soldier and priest, an organizer and rebel, a prisoner and husband and father — but there was ultimate synthesis and deep wisdom. We lit the candles each night, adding light each week, reading the ancient words that offer guidance, comfort and hope.

And we wept. And we laughed.

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