Charlotte Donlon is a writer, spiritual director trainee, and host of the Hope for the Lonely podcast. Her first book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, will be published by Fortress Press in November 2020. Learn more at CharlotteDonlon.com.
I remember an Advent when I was struggling with infertility and found it difficult to enter into a season that anticipates the birth of a baby. During church on those Sunday evenings leading up to Christmas day, a different family—a mother, a father, and at least one child—lit the Advent wreath candles and read a Scripture about the coming of our Savior. While I sat in the dim light of the sanctuary and observed those who had that for which I longed, other parents whispered to their children, answering questions about the wreath and the candles or asking the rowdier little ones to settle down. I saw my pregnant friends sprinkled throughout the congregation whose desires to become mothers were being fulfilled, their bellies full and round. I knew Emmanuel had come. I believed Jesus would return. But I didn’t know if I would ever have a child of my own. I wanted to believe God was always good even if I never became a mother, but I was full of doubt. And my doubt made me lonely.
Christians can find solace in our relationship with God, fellowship with other Christians, and witnesses from Scripture who assure us God will never leave us or forsake us, and yet Christian faith isn’t an inoculation against loneliness and isolation. Indeed, when it comes to this particular suffering, I have often wondered if the mature Christian has an especially deep capacity to notice her loneliness. Does a life of spiritual discipline, Scripture, and truth-telling open our eyes to see the ways that we are always, on this side of eternity, restless for the true intimacy and union that await us?
My faith certainly hasn’t shielded me from loneliness. I’ve known different forms of loneliness since I was a child. Observing the church year has become one buoy that holds me up when I’m overwhelmed with feelings of unbelonging. It reminds me that my life is part of the larger story of God’s creation, redemption, and restoration. “The Christian year, by its rhythms, allows us an opportunity to both look back and remember the story of Christ, and to look forward to its ultimate conclusion,” said Bobby Gross in an interview about his book, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. “The Christian year participates in that same sacramental pattern that God instituted and blessed for the people in the Old Testament and the New Testament, to help us remember in a very active way and anticipate in a way that brings grace into our present spiritual experience.”
I don’t follow the church year with the intent of diminishing my loneliness. I observe it to know more intimately the life of Jesus, his work in the lives of those whom he has rescued and redeemed, and the hope of the “not yet” on this side of heaven. I also enter into the liturgical seasons because they help us wait, lament, hope, celebrate, and acknowledge the full spectrum of the life of the Christian and the life of the church. But one blessing I have received from engaging the church year and its rituals is an increased sense of belonging to myself, others, and God.
Rituals can enhance our affiliation with fellow group members, increase a sense of group loyalty and trust, and produce stronger feelings of connection because they help to integrate our private and public lives. When we partake in rituals, we put words, actions, and meaning around our beliefs. Rituals also help us learn and share cultural knowledge that defines our group’s priorities and creates a sense of closeness because they help us interact with others who share our beliefs. The same is true when we observe the church year. Many of our liturgical rituals are performed in community with our families, friends, neighbors, and members of our local church congregations. As we embark on a collective observance of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and the other liturgical seasons, we are linked with others who are observing the church year in similar ways. While we light Advent wreath candles on the four Sundays before Christmas or receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we know scores of Christians all over the world are doing the same thing and generations of Christians before us have done the same thing throughout a large portion of the church’s existence.
Observing the church year also allows us to feel closer to the Triune Lord. As we explore the stories of Jesus and the truths of the gospel of grace in the Scripture readings and rituals that unfold throughout the church year, we learn more of who God is and more of who we are. When we view time primarily through the lens of the liturgical seasons, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us clarity regarding the movement of God in our lives, the church, and the world. Every year we cycle through the various seasons and see how our lives are intertwined with the life of Jesus brings more invitations to experience greater spiritual intimacy. We walk the well-worn paths again and again and know God will meet us along the way because he has shown up before and has told us in Matthew 28:20, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In my own life, I have also found that practicing the church year connects me to past versions of myself when I engaged time and my faith in similar ways. While I am asking God how I should observe an upcoming Lenten season, I may remember where I spiritually was during Lent the previous year and reflect on what has changed and what has stayed the same. I hear and read the familiar stories about Jesus as he approached the cross and am reminded that while my circumstances change, the truths of the gospel remain the same. When I pull out the bright red tablecloth that adorns our dining table on Pentecost, I think about the very real power of the Holy Spirit that is active in my life and in the church, interceding for us, comforting us, and redirecting our attention to Jesus and the gospel of grace.
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Source: Christianity Today