We are about to enter the Advent season. This is a unique time of waiting, a time of preparation, much as it would have been for Mary carrying a baby in her womb. This is a beautiful and joyful season, not only for Christians around the world who await the birth of Jesus, but also for many others, for whom this is a special time for family reunions and festive celebrations. Colourful lights, ornately decorated trees and carols help create a festive atmosphere. Yet, this year Advent and Christmas will be somehow different.
For most of 2020 the whole world has been affected, in one way or another, by a global pandemic. For several months now, we have become accustomed to signs and posters in church buildings, mobile billboards and government briefings telling us to keep a social distance, not to mix with other households, to wear face coverings, etc. We have seen arrows painted on the floor showing people which direction to follow in order to prevent close contact with others, and thereby to stop the spread of the virus. Sometimes, even when you are out and about walking, you can see people stepping off the curb when they see a stranger approaching in the ‘wrong’ direction. For the first time since the Second World War, education and employment have suffered huge disruptions. Churches also had to close their doors and for several months and masses were not allowed to be celebrated with congregations. The virus has thrown a spanner into our daily routines!
This invisible, yet deadly virus has infected more than 56 million people around the world since the first outbreak was announced last December, 2019, and has killed more than 1.3 million people. In this country alone, according to the Office for National Statistics, more than 52.000 people have lost their lives to covid-19. The UK ranks the fifth with the highest mortality rate in the world and the first in Europe. The economy has shrunk and unemployment has hit record highs. Concerns about domestic violence and mental health issues are frequently raised by experts. Families have endured the pain of burying loved ones with very limited support due to restrictions. Likewise, wedding celebrations have had their numbers limited and many have had to be cancelled or postponed.
So how can we remain hopeful? How can we get into the festive spirit of Christmas amid this gloomy backdrop? As Advent approaches I think of Mary, a young woman carrying a baby, yet having to confront many challenges at that time. Heavily pregnant she fled to Egypt, in order to find safety from Herod’s hands. She experienced rejection and uncertainty. In a way, her experience reminds us of the struggles the world is facing today. We are sailing through unchartered waters, we are going through days filled with anxieties and being socially distanced from our loved ones. Days in which we no longer have full control of our lives.
This time of Advent is an invitation to wait in hope for the birth of Jesus Christ, when we hold on tighter to God’s promise of journeying with humankind always. The same promise that the young woman from Nazareth kept in her heart when she faced troubling times. Life may be different from the normal we knew before, but is yet, a life full of hope that we are yet to discover.
Lived experiences of refused asylum seeking women in the UK: negotiating a hostile environment
I recently finished my research on the lived experiences of refused asylum seeking women in the UK. This is a picture that one of the participants took to reflect on how she navigates the asylum system in this country ‘…I was asking for protection but I ended up taken to detention. I haven’t killed anyone or committed any crime… [I] have a horrible past, our present is miserable and the future is unsure’.
I have journeyed with asylum seekers and refugees since I came to the UK with my family. Poignant quotes like the above reflect the experience of those people we have journeyed with over the years. The recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, affirms our contribution to building relationships with people of diverse backgrounds and religious traditions. Pope Francis calls us all to strengthen these connections in order to build a more just and peaceful world.