Texts: poem inspired by Mark 13:24-25 by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes * Luke 1:5-17 (the birth of John the Baptist foretold)
What does Hope look like this Advent? Perhaps you’re like me, and a lot of your hopes this year focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many find hope in news about vaccines that might help to end the pandemic next year or in 2022. But I tend to downplay such reports since they focus on future unknowns and not on what could be done now.
On Tuesday, the Alberta government declared a state of public health emergency; and before the announcement some had hoped it would include stringent lockdowns of economic and social life while others hoped for the opposite. I even suppose there is a small segment of the population that got precisely the mix of restrictions for which they had hoped.
Personally, I had held out a faint hope that the Alberta government would finally adopt the goal of eliminating COVID-19 and use the measures that have achieved this in East Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. But although a group of Canadian public health professionals initiated a campaign called #COVIDZero this month, eliminating the virus ahead of hoped-for vaccines hasn’t yet become the position of any political leader in Canada.
So, nearly a year after researchers first identified the new coronavirus and more than eight months after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, we continue to feel caught between fear of the disease and hopes that public health measures, or a vaccine, or some other unknown development might stop the pandemic and allow life to return to something like it was before March.
These hopes for the pandemic could also described as wishes; and Advent Hope is less about wishes like those children have for Christmas – for family, fun, or gift-giving — and more about accepting the awesome reality of our situation.
During Advent we prepare for birth. And like most births, the two births told by Luke probably come with ordinary hopes. I assume that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, hope for things like a smooth and easy delivery, a healthy child, and a new life of joy with their first-born.
But as Steve Garnaas-Holmes puts it in the poem we just heard based upon Mark’s prediction of the end of the world, the births we celebrate at Christmas — while they may have their joys — upend everything. “Don’t imagine things will go on,” he writes, “or revert to some way they’ve been. This is the day to make things new, beginning with yourself—and yet not to make, but to be made.”
Advent Hope is not about my selfish wishes that life will return to how it was before COVID. It is a Hope filled with passion, uncertainty, fear, and faith. Advent Hope involves waiting and preparing for something amazing, something unsettling, and something that will end an old way of life and start a new one.
The story of two miraculous conceptions told by Luke in chapter one of his Gospel, give contrasting approaches to Hope. Zechariah reacts with distress and fear when the Angel Gabriel tells him that his aged wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son; and I can hardly blame him. Becoming a parent is difficult at the best of times; and first-time parenting in old age magnifies the difficulties. Nor does John the Baptist sound like an easy child. He grows to become a wild man preaching in the wilderness to poor people who treat him like a new Elijah. He paves the way for Jesus, but ends his life with his head on a platter.
In contrast to Zechariah, Mary, in a story we will hear in two weeks, reacts to the news of her miraculous conception with equanimity and joy. But like all births, the birth of Jesus marks the end of one phase of Mary’s life and the beginning of a more difficult phase. According to Matthew, soon after the birth of Jesus Mary, Joseph, and the infant flee to Egypt ahead of Herod’s murderous soldiers.
Like Mary or Zechariah, we might hope for a life of peace and quiet, but this is not what the birth of a child, or Christmas, or Easter promise us.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have hopes, fears, and opinions; and we are forced to cope as best we can as the subjects of leaders we may not like.
This doesn’t mean we should accept everything governments tell us. Since every country in the world confronted the pandemic at the same time, it has revealed a lot. I am inspired by countries in Africa, East Asia, and the South Pacific that have eliminated COVID; and distressed by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that have experienced the worst results. But what about Canada which falls somewhere between the extremes?
Last week, the Ontario government reacted with anger when the Auditor-General criticized its COVID response. But given that more than 3,500 people have died in Ontario, which is a province of 12 million people, while a country like South Korea with 55 million people has had fewer than 500 deaths and has contained COVID without extensive lockdowns, I wish Ontario would forego its anger, take stock of its experience, and learn from jurisdictions with better outcomes.
But this wish, as logical as it might appear to me, is not an Advent Hope. I can’t but help to hold such hopes. But they are not at the heart of the awesome spiritual growth available to us on the Way of Jesus.
In this difficult Advent, let us trust in Hope that something new is coming and that it will be as amazing, as upsetting, and as powerful as the birth of a first child.
Watch out friends! Christmas is coming; and I’m afraid it’s going to be awesome. May it be so. Amen.