World AIDS Day (www.worldaidsday.org) coincides each year with the start of Advent, presenting opportunities for thoughtful worship that draws together the themes of Advent with the many concerns surrounding HIV/AIDS.
Medical advances in developed countries may make us complacent about a condition that came to our attention in the early 1980s. Yet more than 90,000 people are currently living with HIV in the UK and globally an estimated 33.3 million people have HIV. More than 25 million people between 1981 and 2007 have died from the virus, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
Hymns of pain and hope
In Jan Berry’s Deep in the darkness a starlight is gleaming (StF 625), the idea of Advent journeying, inspired by the star that offers a guiding light towards the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, combines beautifully with a frank expression of inner fears, the pain of those who suffer, and our search for physical and spiritual healing.
She writes: “Still in the darkness we search for your healing, / hoping for meaning to comfort our fear”. Jan is honest about human questioning in the face of physical and emotional fragility; but she is sustained by Christian hope in the “God of the questions” and the “God of our longing, the bliss of our seeking” who we pray to “journey with us to the brightness of day”.
Other Advent hymns that offer a glimmer of hope, as fragile but as powerful as a candle flame in the darkness, include Graham Kendrick’s Like a candle flame, / flickering small in our darkness (StF 176) – with its ringing refrain: “God is with us, alleluia”. Similarly (and in greater detail), Maggi Dawn’s Into the darkness of this world (StF 173), doesn’t shy away from the burdens, the pain, the heavy hearts and the broken places with which those who live with HIV are well-acquainted, while at the same time petitioning God-in-Jesus to “Come with your love / to make us whole”.
The Christmas miracle of God’s incarnation – together with the continuing, insistent sharing of our human experience – underpins the words of the 20th century German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,” he writes, “and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread, / bowed down under weight of weakness, sin, and death”. (We turn to God when we are sorely pressed, StF 640 – with a new tune by Paul Leddington Wright, “The Cost of Disipcleship”, and an alternative suggestion, the more familiar “Eventide”).
Alan Luff prays for “words to speak / when words are all we bear” (God grant us words to speak, StF 647) and asks for help to “lean upon / the only perfect Word” whose healing power is as evident at Advent and Christmas as during Lent and the Easter season. That hymn’s natural companion is perhaps the following text in Singing the Faith, God to enfold you, Christ to uphold you (StF 648): simple words by John Bell that can indeed be spoken or sung with integrity to those who suffer from illness and grief.
Finally, an Advent hymn whose verses lend themselves to use as sung responses to intercessory prayers: Come, Lord Jesus , come (StF 168), with its urgent second verse, “Lord, we need you now”, and its prayers for peace that fills us and love that touches us (verses 3 & 4). Francesca Leftley’s hymn concludes with a petition as apt for a world made imperfect by pandemic and death as it is an expression of Advent hope – “May we see your light”.
Other worship resources
Light and Hope in Advent is a non-lectionary worship resource that was prepared by the Church of Scotland for use on any Sunday before or after World AIDS Day. [Note: This resource makes use of hymns from Church Hymnary 4.] Other information and resources have also been prepared by the Chruch of Scotland.
Listen, also, to Karen Burke’s 2012 interviews with three people involved in HIV-related projects on the Methodist Church’s pocdcast page (scroll down to the podcast for 30 November 2012).