BRIAN SMITH, MS, MA, MDiv
Early in the pandemic I heard many people talk about the need to be flexible and adapt. "We will need to become familiar with the unfamiliar," and "learn how to live with the unexpected." Looking back, I suppose that has been true. We all learned to change our plans without much notice and find alternative solutions, both in our personal lives or in our organizations. However, "living with the unexpected" sometimes can feel like resignation or at least in some sense, a call to be passive and do nothing in the face of an ever-changing virus that continues to morph and impact all aspects of society.
The Catholic Health Association published a series of 2021 Advent reflections called: The Light Shines in the Darkness, and the Darkness Has Not Overcome It." The reflections accompany five beautiful sketches by artist Kim A. Rivera that invite the viewer into visio divina, "divine seeing." Visio divina invites us to slow down and truly look. We open the eyes of our soul and see how God is illuminated for us in art. This practice does not require any special knowledge or appreciation of art, just a willingness to attend to and interact with the colors, textures, forms and overall impressions. Each viewer enters into each detail of the art and becomes attentive to the feelings that arise. The image comes alive with personal meaning meant for the viewer at this point in their spiritual journey.1
I believe this ancient form of contemplation offers us something our ministry needs at this point in our history. Rivera reminds us, "Art forces us to pause and contemplate what is immediately in front of us while guiding us to a deeper truth. Through art we can foster community, form a newfound appreciation of the world and people around us, and prompt change through beauty."2
I would like to share a few of the reflections that came to me this past Advent through visio divina and what they might suggest for us as a ministry in the midst of a global pandemic. I will then conclude with an invitation for our health ministry to look into the "art" God is putting before us right now and how we can contemplate where God is illuminated and respond through its beauty."2
The Angel Gabriel En Route to Mary
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. LUKE 1:26
The first week of Advent invited us to journey with the Angel Gabriel to Mary. In Rivera's sketch, she shows Gabriel outside the town of Nazareth, kneeling before a pool of water with a bouquet of lilies in his hand. This is not the typical Annunciation scene we are used to seeing in Christian art. We are invited into the story from Gabriel's perspective. How will he convince Mary that the Lord is with her and not to be afraid? How will he answer her question, "How can this all be happening?"
Like Gabriel, those who work in Catholic health care are invited by God to be ministering spirits to others. We help people who are frightened, lonely and confused to discover that the Lord is with them. They are never alone. We allow them to ask their questions about what is happening, and we trust that our presence, more than our words, is what will assure them that all will be well.
Is this not what the health care ministry has been doing the past two years? All of us, but especially our direct caregivers have been ministering spirits – angels bringing God's message of love and hope. God is with you. Do not be afraid. You are not alone.
The questions and uncertainties that COVID-19 has brought our world have no simple answers. And many times, today's answer is revised and updated by new information six months later. Like Gabriel, we are called to be a steady presence. A reminder to the communities we serve, that no matter what twists and turns this pandemic takes, God is with us and we are there for them.
The Annunciation and St. Ann
But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." LUKE 1:34-35; 38
As in the first week of Advent, Rivera takes a different perspective on the Annunciation. This time the artist invites us to see the scene through the eyes of St. Ann, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. In her sketch, Rivera shows St. Ann outside of the room where Gabriel is appearing to Mary. It is the look of a mother wanting to protect her daughter, but also knowing she must let Mary make her own decision. St. Ann, like Mary, is wondering: how can this be and what will this mean?
Becoming pregnant outside of marriage in first century Israel would have brought shame and ostracization to the family. Yet, St. Ann is not worried about what others will think. Mother and daughter hold each other and cry together as they sit in wonder, confusion and joy. St. Ann has no quick solutions for this unprecedented event. She offers accompaniment, encouragement and support to Mary.
I believe we have overused the term "unprecedented" in the last two years. A woman becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit – now that is unprecedented! Yet, like Mary and Ann we find ourselves in situations we have never been in before. The temptation may be to isolate and take care of our own; or point fingers and blame others, certain countries, politicians or scientists for all the chaos we encounter. It is easier to isolate and condemn than to find solutions.
But St. Ann gives us an alternative. She shows us the power of accompaniment. She does not try to solve Mary's dilemma but rather loves her and journeys with her as Mary ponders what all this means, and watches God's will unfold. The pandemic has reminded us we are an interdependent global community. We must accompany, encourage and support one another during this remarkable time in human history.
The Visitation and Zechariah
Once when [Zechariah] was serving as priest in his division's turn before God, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time." LUKE 1:8, 11-13, 18-20
In the third week of Advent, the artist invites us to enter into the unfolding events through the eyes of Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest and the husband of Elizabeth, cousin to Mary. The Angel Gabriel visits Zechariah and announces to him that Zechariah and Elizabeth soon will have a son. Like Mary, Zechariah asks Gabriel, "How can this be?" But he also goes on and challenges Gabriel using human logic: "my wife and I are too old to have a baby." In other words, Zechariah limits the "possible" by what his limited human understanding comprehends. In what seems like a harsh rebuke, Zechariah is told he "will be speechless and unable to speak until all of these things take place."
The reflection for the third week of Advent invited us into a Zechariah kind of silence:
"Externally, television, radio and social media are always running like a ticker in the background. Our patients, residents and co-workers have needs to be met, as do our families and personal lives. Internally, we roll through our to-do lists, reflect on past conversations and plan future agendas. The noise and clamor are endless. It is no wonder that we can sometimes be like Zechariah. It is no wonder that when something sacred happens — when an angel of God shows up directly in front of us — we might miss it entirely. Are we too preoccupied with our own noise to receive the divine message?"
Zechariah's silence is the silence of Advent. Like him, we are called to watch and wait for the fulfillment of God's promise. We are called to spend time in Advent listening for God's message of fulfilled hope and miraculous change. We are called to cast aside not only our doubts but also the limitations our disbelief puts on God. Instead, consider how the answers we seek might actually reside in silence."3
What does the silence of Zechariah invite us to as a ministry in the midst of the chaos and busy-ness of the pandemic? Are we placing limitations on the possibilities God can work in our midst? Are we open to new discoveries and new ways of serving our communities? Are we giving the time for silence to discern where God is calling our organizations and our ministry in this place and time?
Personally, the turning point for me this Advent and Christmas season was when I finally entered Zechariah's silence. I must admit most of December I was too preoccupied by Christmas preparations: family coming to town, baking, presents to buy, planning and serving the perfect Christmas meal and on and on and on. Two days after Christmas, I tested positive for COVID. Despite two vaccination shots and boosters and everyone in my family being tested 24 hours before gathering for Christmas, three of us wound up with mild symptoms of the Omicron variant in the days following our celebration.
The real gift in the midst of this unexpected turn of events was the silence that comes with quarantining. I did not watch endless hours of TV or try to fill the silence with noise and activity. While I certainly had the ability to talk on the phone and see people virtually, I limited this to a few calls to my family each day. I knew God was inviting me to slow down, be quiet and look for Him who is always with us.
I never thought I would say having COVID was a blessing, but in some ways it was for me. It helped me remember that when something unexpected happens, we have a choice. We can run around in a frenzy of activity hoping that something will make a difference. We might be tempted to blame others for our plans being disrupted. Or, we can follow the examples given in Scripture. Gabriel, St. Ann and Zechariah show us that the unexpected is an opportunity to grow. It is an invitation to let God work in our lives in new ways: as ministering spirits bringing His abiding love; as companions who accompany each other in a world filled with questions and uncertainty, and as people who wait in silence and respond to the unfolding of God's reign in our midst.
- "The Light Shines in the Darkness, and the Darkness Has Not Overcome It: Reflections for the Season Advent," Catholic Health Association, 2021, https://www.chausa.org/docs/default-source/prayers/cha-2021_advent_v3_single-lr.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
- "The Light Shines," Introduction.
- "The Light Shines," pg. 7.