8 min read

The bleak midwinter: why tears could be the best thing for us this season

In a world of devastation, J.S. Averill shares honest feeling of hopelessness - yet is not overcome.

J. S. Averill is a writer and children's educator, living in the American Pacific Northwest.

In front of a collapsed building, a rescuer carries a new born baby by the arms.
The rescue of Afraa Abu Hadiya, Syria, February 2023.

On February 6th of this year, a heavily pregnant Afraa Abu Hadiya, along with her husband and their four children, was awakened in the dark, early hours of the morning by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake violently shaking their apartment building in Syria. Afraa and her husband gathered their children and made for the building’s exit.  However, just as they were nearing the door, the building collapsed upon them, crushing the entire family.  Afraa, however, seems to have remained conscious for some hours because she did the unthinkable and delivered a baby girl while trapped beneath the rubble.  Then, tragically, she died and her baby was left alone buried beneath a building in the middle of winter. 

This year we have read too many such stories.  In places such as Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and most recently, Israel and Gaza, thousands of women, men, and children have suffered and died and grieved as a result of natural disasters and armed conflict.     

For those of us who live in relative safety, it is difficult even to begin to comprehend such tragedies.  Yet despite our advantages, many of us are struggling in our own ways. According to the CDC, between 25 and 30 per cent of adults in the US are currently experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.  And it is no secret that mental distress levels have been steadily climbing for years in the UK as well, especially amongst youth

It can make the joyful, merry, jolly, happy, cheerful, peaceful Christmas spirit encouraged at this time of year strike a discordant note with the actual state of our minds and hearts. All is not well inside many of us, but we sense that Eeyore is an awkward personality to bring into a room, so we tend to conceal the parts of ourselves that are anxious and hurting.   I confess I’ve become pretty adept at keeping parts of myself out of sight. 

I didn’t say that sometimes I feel like everything beautiful and good is always, sooner or later cornered, caught, and hauled away by the destructive forces in the world.

I met up with a couple of friends recently.  We talked about our children and their school and our plans for Christmas.  I said we were going to keep Christmas simple this year.  What I didn’t say was that we’ve been keeping Christmas “simple” for several years now.  I didn’t say that, a few years after my brother died, my parents and my siblings and I agreed that we would no longer see each other at Christmas because the hole my brother left is too acutely obvious when the rest of us are together.  I didn’t say that we don’t keep our Christmas tree up for long because the crystal star we hang near the top is in memory of our son who never saw his first Christmas, and while I love to make him a part of the holiday in this way, I also can’t live with the visual reminder of that pain for long.  I didn’t say that although we make an effort to give our children a happy Christmas, my husband and I are just trying to make it through to the other side of the holidays because we’ve twice in recent years painfully and unexpectedly lost our household income right before Christmas and the season now triggers within us the fear and confusion and hurt of those Christmases.   I didn’t say that sometimes I feel like everything beautiful and good is always, sooner or later cornered, caught, and hauled away by the destructive forces in the world. I just told my friends that we were going to keep Christmas simple.  Maybe you have your own lines you trot out on such occasions. 

If you do, the season of Advent is a welcoming space for such as us.  Advent is observed during the four weeks leading up to Christmas and marks the beginning of the Christian church year.  Traditionally, it is a time when Christians remember how their spiritual ancestors, the ancient nation of Israel, spent roughly 600 years being conquered and enslaved successively by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and then Rome.  The God of Israel had, however, promised that he would, one day, send them a deliverer, a “messiah”, to rescue them from their bondage.  And so, the Israelite people, in their suffering, waited and looked and prayed for the coming of their deliverer.    

Christians believe that Jesus, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas, was that messiah, and that (spoiler warning) he ended up delivering not only Israel, but the whole world in a very different way than anyone was expecting.  (But that’s the story of Easter, and we’re not there yet.) During Advent, Christians remember the centuries of Israel’s powerless waiting to be rescued, and how, true to his word, God sent them a messiah.

Choosing this hope sometimes feels naïve and even dangerous. I want to have hope, to hold it like a banner against the forces of destruction and pain whirling about in the air. 

However, Advent is not just for looking back.  It is also a space for acknowledging all the myriad ways in which darkness still rules over us today.  How we still suffer and hurt and die.  How we inflict these things on each other.  How it seems like, no matter how we try to make the world better, it’s still always in a tragic mess.  And then, while we’re acknowledging all of that and feeling its great weight, Advent asks us to do something that feels preposterous at times: to believe the promise Jesus made that he will, one day, banish darkness from the earth and make it completely and irreversibly whole and new.  In short, we’re asked to continue to wait hopefully for light to break while we live in the darkness.   

Choosing this hope sometimes feels naïve and even dangerous. I want to have hope, to hold it like a banner against the forces of destruction and pain whirling about in the air.  But, in the face of the anguish of Israel and Gaza, and the wounds I’ve experienced in my own life, do I dare live as if everything will come right in the end?  I would like to, but when hope ends in disappointment it wounds deeply.  I’m not always sure I can afford to risk hope.

If you still weep and mourn for what is wrong in the world, however powerless and wounded you may feel, you are not yet overcome. 

Advent urges me never to stop calling for help, but if calling for help isn’t exactly the same thing as summoning hope, it’s perilously close.  Is it possible to call for help if I don’t believe, if I am afraid to let myself believe any help will arrive?   

Well, apparently it is.  I learned this from Afraa’s tiny daughter buried in rubble.   

After the earthquake, relatives and friends rushed to the ruins of the collapsed apartment building in order to try to rescue those who had been inside.  As they dug through the debris, one of them reported hearing “a voice” from beneath the rubble.  The rescuers followed the sound and eventually uncovered the baby, still attached to her mother by the umbilical cord.  She was pulled from the wreckage of her house and family, and sped to hospital where she miraculously made a recovery and was adopted by her aunt and uncle who gave her her mother’s name.    

She was rescued because someone heard her voice.  The journalist does not specify what kind of noise she was making, but given that she was injured, suffering from hypothermia, and barely breathing it seems it must have been weak crying or whimpering.  And considering that she was surrounded by her dead mother, father, and four siblings, and that the entirety of her short life outside her mother’s body had consisted of the noise, terror, chaos and pain of the building falling upon her, it seems impossible that she was hopefully and consciously calling for help. How could she imagine what help might be?  Her mother had not even had the chance to hold her in her arms. What could she know of a tender face, gentle hands, warm blankets, nourishment in her belly, soft fabric against her skin, the healing of wounds?  She was not waiting or hoping for any of these.  She did not even know they existed.  She was simply weeping for the terror and pain and loneliness of her little life.  But the weeping was enough to save her.    

As I consider tears, it seems to me that they can, in themselves, be reason for hope.  The person who weeps has accepted neither that things are the way they should be (as do those who cooperate with or advance the destructive forces in the world), nor that things are the way they must be (as do those who, however understandably, give up and surrender themselves to being destroyed).  If you still weep and mourn for what is wrong in the world, however powerless and wounded you may feel, you are not yet overcome.  In fact, unless we grasp how grievous our wounds are, how can we begin to seek out the right physician?  How will we choose to make the changes within our power to make?  A world that is lamenting its own brokenness, as Advent encourages it to do, seems to me to be a world for which there is yet hope.    

I have never experienced the trauma of a building collapsing upon me, but I’ve spent plenty of time trapped beneath the twin wreckages of a life I once had and the one I was hoping to build.  Maybe you’re buried in rubble too.  Maybe you’ve survived an earthquake and its aftershocks, but you’re not sure you’re glad you have because you’re bleeding and crushed and in the dark and you can’t imagine how you will rebuild and survive in such a world even if you do eventually emerge.  Maybe you’re not even sure you want to be rescued because it’s all, all broken now – your home, your family, your bones.   

This Advent I am trying to gather the strength to call for help for myself and for the world although my heart and my faith are bruised.  Maybe you will call too.  But if we are too afraid and confused and wounded to do even that, then let us weep, friend, together in this darkness.  For although this is a world in which much breaks and dies, it is also one in which rescue has been known to arrive unlooked and unhoped for.  And if the memory and the promise of Advent hold any truth, sometimes the hand outstretched unexpectedly to deliver turns out to be, beyond all imagining, the hand of God. 

4 min read

What would you do with one day more?

A leap year creates opportunities.

Jamie is Associate Minister at Holy Trinity Clapham, London.

Looking straight down on someone sitting in an armchair working on a laptop. They are surrounded by clock numerals and hands on the floor.
Kevin Ku on Unsplash.

We're all going into extra time. If you've found yourself thinking, 'If only I had some more time', then this is the year for you. Congratulations. So how are you going to make the most of the extra day we're gifted? In a leap year, the 29th February square sits quietly there on the calendar, with little fanfare, unless you're one of the unfortunate souls to be celebrating your quadrennial birthday. But it's not just another Thursday. It's redemption time if you've ever flown east across the international date line and wondered where that day disappeared, never to return. 

When you think about extra time in football, the pressure is only heightened, the anticipation and trepidation palpable. Willy Wonka - no, not the recent foppish Timothée Chalamet, but Gene Wilder – famously got muddled when he feverishly announced, 'We have so much time, and so little to do!' Unlike Otis Redding, sittin' on the dock of the bay, wasting time, we have learnt to squeeze more and more into our days, making the most of the time. 

I'm not immune. I've recently begun using an AI app for scheduling meetings and tasks. This app promises to turbocharge my productivity by 137 per cent. Somehow it boasts, 'There are now 13 months in a year'. Of course, there's little way of measuring just how super-duper-extra-productive this is going to make me but so far, I still seem to only have seven days in my week. So, if we were to stop spinning on our hamster wheels of productivity for a moment, and take a look at time (given with this extra day we have the time to do so), how might we make the most of it? 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. 

It's worth measuring not only how much time we have, but the quality of the time we have. We know how to measure time, but how do we measure this measure? Time is of the essence. But what is the essence of time? For Charles Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times went hand-in-hand. The apostle Paul warned the church in Ephesus to make the most of every opportunity, 'because the days are evil'. Is time neutral? Perhaps we should ask the women and children of Afghanistan after the Doha agreement was signed on the last 29th February, with ominous consequences. Every day has the capacity for good and evil, including in a leap year. And if the days are evil, then as we consider how we live, as the King James Version puts it, that we can 'redeem the time'. 

Then there's not only redeeming the time in terms of its quality, but also its quantity. Eventually, one day (quite some time away), HS2 will mean there's 32 minutes 'saved' for those travelling between Birmingham and London. And how many times have you said or heard recently that you've 'run out of time'? Our society treats time as a scarce commodity. There's regret over the time that we have wasted on an unworthy Netflix offering, on doom-scrolling, or that time in the post office queue we'll never get back. 

I recently went to a memorial service of a friend who died in her early 60s. It was not only a sober reminder that we don't know how much time we have, but also an inspiration to live like someone who made the most of her days, by helping others to make the most of their time. 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. Richard Curtis' film About Time invites us into the relationship between a father and son who have the power to travel through time. While the lesson learnt is that we have the power to make the most of every day, the bulk of the film is really about the relationship. Any time he wants, the son can escape back to Cornwall and play table tennis or skim pebbles along the water with his dad. These experiences beyond his own linear timeline teach him how to live in his present reality. 

Christianity also invites us to live in the love between a Father and a Son, and from that place we keep time. Jesus spoke about eternal life: not only a quantity of life beyond death, but a quality of life that we can experience beginning today. Sure, we can't escape the reality of any of the worst times around us, but we can invite the best of times of eternity into today. Maybe our relationship with time is so fraught because we were made to live beyond time. 

The wristband on my watch recently fell apart. I suppose you could say I've been walking around without time on my hands. Time doesn't need to be elusive, slipping away from us. Time, just like the day, can be seized and grasped. King David wrote of God: 'my times are in your hands'. A leap year gives us a whole extra day of deadlines, potential ephemeral joys and sorrows. Perhaps putting our hope not in today, nor tomorrow, but into the hands of the maker of time is the greatest leap.