As COVID-19 propels us towards a different kind of Christmas, this Advent could be a time for considering God’s expectations for Christians and the church, says Newfoundland priest and theological studies professor Robert Cooke.
The Rev. Robert Cooke is the rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in St. John’s, N.L. He’s also an adjunct professor at Queen’s College’s faculty of theology. Wearing that hat, he finds inspiration in 21st-century expressions of theology in the vein of Jürgen Moltmann and John Caputo, including radical theology and process theology—“Basically, I’m really interested in what theology looks like lived out on the ground.”
Cooke describes himself as less interested in ivory towers and theory and more focused on a “get-your-hands-dirty theology.” In anticipation of Advent, the Anglican Journal spoke with Cooke in October about the church’s season of waiting—and what might be different this year. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
As we head into December, it strikes me we’re not just having conjectural conversations about God and faith and doom and struggle and hope—we’re living those out. In this COVID world we’re in, how should we be entering Advent?
Advent’s really interesting because we’re getting ready for something that’s already here, in some ways. This is the weird thing about the way the church keeps time: it’s not necessarily chronological time we’re keeping, it’s theological time. The idea is that we’re waiting for something that has already happened. It’s already a reality.
It’s kind of an odd way of thinking about time. But COVID is a present reality. It’s with us right now, and it’s not like we’re going to sit back and wait for COVID to be over and then we’re going to go back to being the church. The challenge is: What does it mean to be the church now? “Waiting” isn’t waiting for this to be over—it’s an active, participatory waiting. That’s what Advent is, that’s how Advent makes sense. It’s not sitting around twiddling our thumbs and praying until Jesus comes. It’s our action that brings that coming.
How do you think the church should be walking with people through Advent, especially to a Christmas which might look really different from what we’re accustomed to?
We’re in an odd situation in the church, because Christmas still has a lot of cultural impact on people outside of the church, but Advent doesn’t. The church is keeping Advent, but not the rest of society. So, we use Advent as a time to get ready for that Christmas celebration, whereas for many, that Christmas is an end, in and of itself.
We’re a very “instant” culture; we want it right now, or actually we want it five minutes ago. Advent can be a time to have a conversation about that slowing down, that intentional waiting—that things take time, they don’t just happen instantaneously. This points to the idea that Christmas is not an end, either. Christmas is a beginning.
The church does this great thing about beginnings and ending. Every ending is a beginning. The story is never over. The story keeps going, and we keep getting drawn back into the story over and over again. The story is always new. It never just happens instantaneously; it’s a process, even on the individual level for the individual believer—like with baptism. Baptism is not something that just fixes us once and for all. It’s the beginning of a journey, and we have to keep coming back again and again and again in that process.
Advent is a very countercultural season. That idea of waiting intentionally, of getting ready, of preparing for something—I think that’s how we can engage in a conversation with wider society.
And that might be a helpful conversation this year. We won’t have the same kinds of secular gatherings that we’re accustomed to, where Christmas begins with parties sometime around Dec. 10 and ends at noon on Dec. 25. We might have a societal need for more of a process.
Definitely. I think this is a Christmas, too, where we’re going to have to go out and find the people. In some situations, they won’t be able to come to us, not in the traditional sense of coming to the church as part of their Christmas Eve tradition. So we need to be even more intentional about finding ways to reach people where they are, and helping them resource that intentional keeping of Christmas that you’re talking about. And finding creative ways—whether it’s through social media, YouTube, or whatever—where people can make that journey together.
That’s going to be a real challenge for us this year. Christmas is going to look dramatically different. Right now, I’m speaking to you from the Atlantic bubble, where we have very few cases. Life is not normal, but we’re pretty open here now, and you can do just about anything you did before. What that’s going to look like by the time we get to December, who knows? The challenge is: how do we come together when we can’t be together physically? And I think we’ve learned some lessons on that, from the beginning of COVID to now. But I think Christmas is going to present some challenges we haven’t faced yet, because of the cultural and liturgical significance of it.
Here at St. Mark’s, where I minister, Christmas Eve through Christmas Day we can get over 1,000 people through the door. That’s not going to happen this year, right? We have a maximum now of 100 people per gathering. You have to register beforehand. So one of our challenges is: how are we going to let people know outside of the church that you have to register to come to church now? We won’t be able to handle as many people because we have to be realistic about our time and allowing for cleaning, so we won’t even have half of our normal congregation.
It certainly presents an interesting idea that we might come to Christmas, and we have people who are eager to show up and participate, and we have to tell them there’s no room in the inn.
I was just thinking that same thing. It will be awful ironic if come Christmas worship time, we’re turning people away. That’s kind of an important part of the story.
But I think the church is coming to terms, and will continue to have to come to terms, with not solely identifying ourselves as the people who gather in a building for worship—that we’re the people of God who are out there already living our lives, whether that’s as a staff writer for the Anglican Journal, as someone who teaches school, as someone who’s a plumber, as a kid who is in high school. That’s where we live out our faith. That’s a big challenge for us, and increasingly it’s going to be hard for parishes to be a group of people with a church building and a full-time priest and some other staff to help take care of them spiritually. That’s very quickly disappearing. So, what does it mean to be the church when you don’t have a building and maybe you don’t have a paid priest? What does that look like? We were moving towards that anyways, and I think COVID is speeding that up.
Which is where Advent and new beginnings become important. New beginnings never come easily. Just ask Mary, right? Hers came through blood, sweat, and tears, and a lot of pain. The other big, central story for us, which is Good Friday—same thing. New beginnings come through a lot of blood, sweat, tears and pain. But from that comes new life.
The Christmas story is really important, not because a cute baby was born that day but because God became flesh. So incarnation is important to our story, too—the enfleshment of God. Again, to go back to that participatory thing, that’s still something that we’re participating in today. How do you enflesh when you have to physically distance from people?
We sometimes talk of Advent and the anticipation of Christ in terms that are more apocalyptic—the second coming. The new beginnings are wrapped up with endings, as well. Do you see signs of apocalypse in what we’re going through now, as society and church?
We have to be careful when we start using the word apocalypse, or apocalyptic. In the New Testament that means not just an end, but a beginning. It means, really, something being revealed. The literal Greek translation of that is the lifting of the veil, to show something that was hidden.
COVID’s really doing that. In that sense, COVID is an apocalyptic event for us. It is lifting the veil. It is lifting the veil on the way that we interact with each other, the way that we interact with creation, and the way that we’ve handled creation and mishandled our relationships with each other. It’s showing us that those things aren’t sustainable; we can’t continue on that path. It’s calling into question our political relationships, our economic relationships, our environmental relationships. And it’s calling into question the way we are church together. COVID is definitely an apocalyptic moment, and Advent is a great time to have that conversation about what is ending and what is beginning [around this].
I’ve been thinking about this since I got your email about Advent and waiting. Maybe this Advent we need to not think so much about what we’re waiting for God to do, but what God is waiting for us to do; that God is waiting for us to realign those relationships that we have, to find the healing for the brokenness that we know is very real, that COVID has exposed; that God is waiting for us to get our act together. It’s not that we’re waiting for God to come and make all this right, but that God is waiting for us to work together to start making it right.
I don’t think we can do it on our own. I think we do need God. And as Christians, we need Jesus at the centre of that. But maybe this Advent, that’s the different way that we need to approach the season; that we’re not necessarily waiting for God to do something. Good theology would tell us that it’s already been done. Jesus, in the incarnation, on the cross, through the resurrection—it’s done. But we’re still being called to participate in that. So maybe this is the season we see that God is waiting for us, not the other way around.