In middle school, my class did a project on Christmas traditions from around the world. I remember reading about a tradition common in some European countries where households put out an extra place setting at their table on Christmas Eve. This way, if an unexpected guest arrived at their doorstep, they were ready to invite them in to join in their meal. The origin of this tradition is unclear. Some scholars think that this tradition may be a continuation of the Jewish practice of leaving a space at the table for the Prophet Elijah during the Passover meal, in case the Prophet came to share a message from God about the coming Messiah. Some think that it is a symbol of the hospitality extended to Mary and Joseph on the night of Jesus’ birth and a reminder to extend hospitality to unexpected guests in need. Others think that it is about inviting Jesus himself to join the meal, as he may be making himself known through the presence of a stranger. Regardless of its origin, I find this practice beautiful and see it as a metaphor for my understanding of the Kingdom of God; no matter how many guests we may have at the table, there is always room for more.
This Christmas tradition reminds me of something I once heard the late Barbara Newman say. A few years ago, I attended a workshop put on by Hope Centre Ministries in Winnipeg, at which she was a speaker. She showed us an exercise we could do with our churches as a part of a discussion on increasing inclusion in our churches. She gave us each a puzzle piece that was half green and half pink. In one of the colours, we wrote our strengths, and in the other, we wrote our weaknesses. No matter our abilities or disabilities, or our strengths and weaknesses, she said, we all are important members of God’s body. Without us, the puzzle would be incomplete. She encouraged us to do this activity with our churches and to put up the puzzle as a display. However, she encouraged us to always leave the puzzle incomplete as a reminder that our church community is always incomplete and that there should always be room for one more.
This Advent, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of creating space as an act of love. An obvious outlet for this is in striving for accessibility within our communities. This fall, I read a book of essays by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018) entitled Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. In this book, Piepzna-Samarasinha advocates for what they call “care webs,” which are community networks built around mutual aid and cross-disability solidarity and interdependence. This radical framework is designed as a supplement and possible alternative to the models of care common in our capitalist society, as these models often result in people with overlapping oppressions falling through the cracks. Using the framework of the care web, Piepzna-Samarasinha emphasizes that access should not be seen as a chore or the responsibility of an individual. Rather, access is a collective responsibility and can be a deeply joyful act of solidarity and expression of radical and revolutionary love. They write:
We all deserve love. Love as an action verb. Love in full inclusion, in centrality, in not being forgotten. Being loved for our disabilities, our weirdness, not despite them. [. . .] So when you work to make spaces accessible, and then more accessible, know that you can come from a deep, profound place of love. And if you can’t love us, or love yourself – know that the daily practice of loving self is intertwined with any safe room, accessible chairs, ramp. Both/and. When they are there, they show our bodies that we belong.
So what does all of this have to do with Advent? In the Church, Advent is a time during which we anticipate and prepare for the long-awaited birth of Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God. This year, we find ourselves in a particularly strange waiting period as we hope for a world without the grief, fear, and isolation we experience as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of this waiting, I am reminded of how, in Pauline theology, the Christian Church is a pledge and foretaste of the coming ‘harvest,’ the future Kingdom of God (Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:14.). As we prepare for this Christmas season, may we ask: what can we do, individually and communally, to bring Paul’s vision and challenge to fruition? How can we create space for God’s radical love? How can we better make sure that there is space for everyone – with both their strengths and weaknesses – and always room for more? How can we advocate for those in – and outside of – our communities to ensure that every body is welcome and receives the love, respect, and dignity that it deserves? And how can we do all of these things during the time of Covid-19, where our experiences of space and relationship have shifted considerably?
For many of us, this holiday season will be different. With change inevitably comes loss and grief – and it is good and healthy to acknowledge and dwell for a time with those things. Yet my hope for us all is that this Christmas will be more than that, and so I will leave you with this blessing:
In this season of darkness and perpetual waiting, may you warmed by joy and illuminated by hope – and may you remember to make a little extra space for love.
Jacqueline Giesbrecht is a first-year PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, where she is studying religion and disability. She is originally from Manitoba and received her undergraduate degree in Biblical and Theological Studies from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. Jacqueline has supported people with disabilities in numerous contexts both professionally and personally and is a passionate advocate for accessibility and inclusion in religious communities and in education.