A nationwide prayer movement launches today to unite Christians in a cry of lament for the UK's towns and cities after a year marked by Covid-19 and lockdowns.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a joint initiative of Movement Day and the Bible Society, with support from the Evangelical Alliance, Share Jesus International, the GATHER movement and PassionArt.
It is inspired by the powerful Advent hymn of the same name and has been launched to help people "lament, reflect and pray at this time of crisis".
Throughout Advent, daily prayers will be released via the website written by people from all spheres of life "crying out for hope, peace, love and joy over our towns and cities this Christmas time".
At 9am each Sunday during Advent, short companion videos will be released on YouTube to offer further reflections, with the first one going live this Sunday.
The prayers have been designed for use both in church settings as well as for personal prayer, and for use by people who do not go to church but pray.
Roger Sutton, head of Movement Day and the GATHER network, speaks to Christian Today about the initiative and why lamentation is so important during this season of Advent.
CT: We're used to Christmas being very jolly and cheery, but the tone of this prayer initiative is lamentation. Why did you choose lamentation as the theme?
Roger: Firstly, there's an element of lamentation within the Christmas story. The Advent story itself is already set in the context of difficulty and lamentation. lt certainly wasn't easy for Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and giving birth to the baby Jesus against the backdrop of oppression under King Herod.
And the Christmas story certainly speaks to our Advent today. This is the most difficult period I think we've faced as a nation since the Second World War, and we wanted to reflect that reality within the prayer resources.
The carol of 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel' is such a haunting lamentation; it's a cry from the heart. But the beauty of lamentation is that it gives us the ability to express our rawest emotions. We can turn our emotions into prayer and not just bury them.
And even in the context of lamentation, there is still the beauty of Advent which we can see in the words from the hymn, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel."
CT: There's a focus on towns and cities. Why is that?
Roger: Movement Day is about cities and towns so the prayers that come out of it are from ordinary people living in these places.
But we also wanted this prayer movement to offer an opportunity to reflect on the state of our cities and towns as they go through this pandemic, as well as what they might look like coming out of it, because a vaccine will address the health problem but it's not an economic solution or an answer to the mental health issues, the unemployment or struggling businesses.
Things may start to recover in the next few months, but we're still going to be faced with a long period of recovery yet.
CT: Is this for Christians of all denominations and traditions?
Roger: Yes, it's for all Christians whatever their tradition, but it's also for the people who wouldn't necessarily call themselves Christians but who do pray and do carry a lament within them.
There's a point at which all you can do is cry out because you've got no answers; you can't change anything. That's the cry really, that's the human condition.
We live in Trafford, Greater Manchester, and we're going to be in Tier 3 again when the lockdown ends. In fact, Manchester's been in Tier 3 since August. Others will be in the same boat as us and within so many people, there will be this lament as restrictions remain in place.
CT: What change would you love to see coming through the prayers?
Roger: I think the outcome we're looking for is seeing people pray; not just looking at the prayers but really speaking them out and connecting to God. I think praying really gets to the question of: how can we get through this? How can we recover?
That's the prayer, because I think we're going to need some godly answers to our questions going forward! Our mental health services do a wonderful job but they are overstretched and limited in the time they can give. We need some new answers on mental health, on food provision, on so many of the challenges we are facing. So we are praying for our towns and cities, that there would be a season of freshness and renewal after all this.
CT: It seems like people are praying more since the pandemic started.
Roger: I think so - certainly Christians are! I think that's because a lot of the props that were there before - like the church services, the great band or the great 'moments' in the service - they are no longer there. But I think even among non-Christians there is a new openness to pray because all of this is so beyond us, we can't find our own way out of this crisis and so many of the things we cared about before seem so irrelevant now.
CT: What else do you think the pandemic has changed about us?
Roger: My wife and I actually did shielding for most of the time and we really relied on people to deliver things to our house. It's certainly thrown us back on community, which I think is a good thing, and I think it's led us to focus on our neighbourhoods more than ever now.
Hence, the focus with this prayer movement around our places. Our places are really important to us and we wanted the prayer to be not only for personal reflection but praying for others and the places we live in.
CT: There are so many people who are living in isolation. Prayer for them right now will probably bring so much solace.
Roger: I've had the privilege of leading the crisis response across Trafford and we know elderly people who haven't been out of their house since March. That's isolation. But all sorts of people are feeling it, not only the elderly. We live on a council estate where there are single mums trying to cope on their own. It's tough and this whole experience has really forced us to ask ourselves: how resilient are we really?