The delightful sounds of the holidays are in the air:
The unrolling of wrapping paper.
The tearing off of a piece of Scotch tape.
The striking of a match to light a candle.
The booming belly laugh of a man in a red suit.
The clanging of a bell for the Salvation Army.
The whirling sound of a mixer.
The closing of an oven door.
They are familiar sounds that traditionally brighten our faces in anticipation of Christmas day.
But this year, the sounds do not carry quite the same meaning. Oh, many of us attempt to capture and retain the spirit of the holidays like years gone by. We refuse to bow to the pandemic’s draconian forces. We vow not to yield by maintaining every shred of holiday tradition that is within our power.
Yet . . . it is not the holidays as usual.
This came home to me as I listened to a favorite Christmas song by Sara Groves:
To be with you, to be with you
I love this time of year
It always brings me here
To be with you
The words gave me pause. As this refrain echoed through my home, I became cognizant of an unfilled longing for 2020 . . .
being with friends.
being with family
being with you.
The holidays of 2020 will be of a different reality from previous years.
Rather than presence, absence.
Rather than crowded tables, empty chairs.
Rather than fullness, losses.
Rather than the gathering of many, the gathering of one or two.
Some families will come together but without the expression of touch or the ability to see another’s smile. Others will interact, but it will be via a glass barrier or a video call. And still others will be sequestered without contact with extended relatives and friends. Some remain absent by choice—to protect self and neighbor. But for others, a choice is not available as death has snatched away family members and friends.
“Oh, to be with you” is the unsatisfied heart cry for many in 2020, juxtaposing celebrating with grieving. It is ironic that an Advent season that announces presence is also a season of absence. A season of joyful noise is also a season of silence. And yet . . . perhaps embodied in this peculiar season is also an invitation to ponder the absence and presence of the divine and thereby enrich our understanding.
As we remember the last several months and consider the months ahead, it may appear that God is absent. As I type this, 1.65 million people have died from COVID-19.
Try to take that in.
Such a loss of life from a virus would seem to indicate that God is silent or apathetic . . . or even that God is the figment of human imagination. Paul Bongchan Ko speaks of members of his Korean congregation who wonder about God’s silence in the midst of a pandemic. The author writes:
“People feel as if God is silent amidst this time of suffering, and when people experience God’s silence, they tend to interpret it as God’s absence from the world or God’s indifference toward their suffering.”
As a pentecostal, I resonate with this, particularly in light of the fact that my pentecostal upbringing stressed feelings.
I heard phrases like:
- I am sensing the Spirit.
- I felt the presence of the Lord.
- God is powerful in this place.
We sang songs that emphasized feelings:
- “Every time I feel the Spirit in my heart, I will pray.”
- “You are awesome in this place, Mighty God.”
- “I feel it in my bones You’re about to move; I feel it in the wind You’re about to ride in.”
- “The presence of the Lord is here; I feel it in the atmosphere.”
It may come as no surprise to you, then, that I intuitively learned to take my spiritual temperature by way of my feelings. If I did not feel near to God, then I had drifted away from God. Never mind that these feelings may be a result of too much pizza the night before, a bad headache, or lack of sleep. It was my problem if I was not feeling it in my relationship with God. After all, I was told, “If God seemed far away, who moved?” No one ever mentioned that God had a will so that God could be silent or distant, too. Instead, it was my responsibility, and it was up to me to feel close to God. Now, that produces a lot of fear and anxiety! But my experience was not an isolated case. As Classical Pentecostal Cecil Robeck comments:
“Pentecostals are a fearful people. They fear that they will miss the will of God, that they will be found to be unfaithful servants . . . These fears, however, may also be maintained by embracing a view of God’s grace which is narrower in theory than it is in reality.”
Is it any wonder, then, that when I eventually experienced a devastating loss, I found myself fearing (and even believing that I had experienced) the loss of God’s presence?
If we turn to scripture, we find that humanity’s experiencing or not experiencing God’s presence is one of its central features.
Genesis’ story of the beginnings of humanity portray the importance of God’s presence. Adam and Eve are depicted as enjoying the presence of God without any barriers . . . until . . . sin enters the picture. When sin enters, Adam and Eve are banished from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. Peter Enns characterizes this as being “exiled”:
“The Adam story plays on the idea that exile is a kind of “death”—a spiritual death, separation from God’s presence.”
As Enns describes, Israel’s narrative has a similar line throughout the Old Testament: if they obeyed, God was with them; if they disobeyed, they were separated from God’s presence, or exiled. For Enns, this story in Genesis, then, “is an abbreviated version of Israel’s story.” It involves the themes of abiding in God’s presence and being exiled from God’s presence. That is, it is a narrative of the presence and the absence of God.
Now . . . let me fast forward to John’s Gospel, where the theme of God’s presence continues. John begins with an implied reference to Genesis 1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God (v. 1).
A few verses later, the theme of divine presence with humanity appears:
Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. (v. 14)
Here John speaks of God’s presence in that God became flesh and blood—God is fully present while God is fully human. In other words, God is with us. John indicates that this presence is grace and truth. This is truth embodied rather than simply being a statement of fact or a perspective. But it is also grace personified. This means that Jesus Christ is the full image of integrity with grace. This eliminates meritocracy. Scott Erickson says it like this:
“His arrival stands against the idea that if you do it right, you get access to His presence. His presence was freely given. He never withheld it. Grace is presence not withheld.”
God’s act of ministry in the person of Jesus stands in contrast to the perspective, “you get what you deserve,” an economy permeated with anxiety and fear. When we depend on the currency of merit, we tend to fear God’s apparent absence. Perhaps what is needed in this case is a renewed vision of who God is as seen in Jesus. As Paul Bongchan Ko points out, it is not so much a question of “Where is God,” but “Who is God.” It says volumes about God’s character when God is present to humanity while we are still God’s enemies; thus, we now may be assured that God is present to us in our earthly sufferings since we are already reconciled to God.
A friend of mine stated it this way (thank you, Jason):
“The way God responds to our ultimate suffering becomes a paradigm for how God responds to our penultimate suffering.”
Advent is a reminder that God’s answer to our ultimate suffering is to be present to us in Jesus Christ. God resides with, or is present to, humanity in two ways in Jesus: (1) temporarily as a person walking and living on earth, and (2) eternally within the being of Jesus as he is both fully divine and fully human. So, if God is present to humanity in Jesus in order to resolve humanity’s ultimate suffering, how much more is God present with us even while God is apparently absent during a pandemic?
May we see the opportunity to renew our vision of God during an Advent season amidst this pandemic. The pandemic exemplifies the apparent absence of God while Advent encapsulates the eternal presence of God being with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In short, this is the experience of apparent absence in God’s presence.
There is another Christmas song that rings out in our home, Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Our God is with Us”:
But for all of us who journey through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement – we are never alone . . . And our God is with us, Emmanuel.
he’s come to save us, Emmanuel.
And we will never face life alone
Now that God has made Himself known,
As Father and Friend, with us through the end, Emmanuel.
I close with this prayer:
Holy Spirit, in a pandemic amidst Advent may you renew our vision of God, reminding us that while God is apparently absent, God is present.
 Sara Groves, “To Be with You,” by Sara Groves, Andy Gullahorn, and Ben Shive, October 2008, track 5 on O Holy Night, Fair Trade Services, compact disc.
 Center for Disease Control reports that weekly deaths from all causes are higher in 2020. See also Denise Lu, “2020 Was Especially Deadly. Covid Wasn’t the Only Culprit,” New York Times, December 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/13/us/deaths-covid-other-causes.html (accessed December 15, 2020).
 Paul Bongchan Ko, “Silence as a Sign of God’s Transformative Encounter with Those Who Suffer,” The Journal of Asian American Theological Forum 7, no. 2 (December 2020): 39, https://aatfweb.org/2020/12/07/silence-as-a-sign-of-gods-transformative-encounter-with-those-who-suffer/, (accessed December 15, 2020).
 Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., “Taking Stock of Pentecostalism: The Personal Reflections of a Retiring Editor,” Pneuma 15, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 54-55.
 Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), Kindle Edition, 114.
 Scott Erickson, Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), Kindle Edition, 44.
 Paul Bongchan Ko, “Silence as a Sign of God’s Transformative Encounter with Those Who Suffer,” 39.
 Steven Curtis Chapman, “Our God is with Us,” by Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman, 1995, track 5 on The Music of Christmas, Sony/ATV Music, compact disc.