Texts: “Peacemaking and the spiritual life” by John Dear * Luke 1:18-25 (“waiting in silence”)
Advent feels more important this year than usual because getting ready for Christmas during the pandemic requires extra thought and care.
When the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, some hoped it would be under control by Easter. But here it is December, and after nine months not only is the pandemic not controlled, it is accelerating.
Pretty much every family is adjusting their expectations for Christmas; and I suppose some of these adjustments may be welcome. Fewer trips mean less worry about storms and road conditions. Fewer people around the family table means less preparation and cleanup. And for those who have experienced hurt or pain at past family gatherings, the pandemic provides an excuse to skip them this year.
But for others, the cancellations and continued physical restrictions are unwelcome. No sing-along Messiah at Robertson-Wesley this year. No trips to the multiplex. No “Joy to the World” sung in packed sanctuaries this Christmas Eve.
Efforts to contain the pandemic have been likened to a war. Some people are on the front lines: nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, and personal support workers in long-term care homes. The rest of us are in the rear trying to do our part by sheltering in place and reducing our contacts.
But if this is a war, it is a strange one. All of the world’s governments have engaged in the battle, but most of them have decided it is too costly to actually win the war. Eliminating the virus would be “too damaging to the economy,” they argue. Better to apply just enough public health measures to keep the number of those infected at a level that won’t overwhelm the healthcare system until such time as vaccines arrive that can win the war for us next year.
I am excited at news of all the different vaccines being developed, one of which was approved by Britain last week and more that will likely be approved this week. I also have greater confidence in the rollout of vaccines than in the efforts of our governments so far because I sense Canada’s leaders believe in the vaccines in a way they haven’t seemed to believe in systems of test, trace, and isolation.
COVID-19 has revealed a lot. On the positive side, it revealed how quickly government, business, and community groups like churches could react in the face of a new danger; and how vast resources of financial support could be made available to support workers and businesses. On the negative side, it revealed unsafe working and living conditions in long-term care homes, migrant farm laborer camps, and meatpacking plants; and how the persistence of mass incarceration, homelessness, and poverty make life less safe for everyone.
I had hoped that a large part of the massive pandemic financial support would have been spent to improve long-term care homes and build better accommodations for migrant labourers, and into housing the homeless and ending Canada’s system of mass incarceration. Such efforts would have addressed longstanding injustices; provided work for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic; and made Canada safer for everyone.
I also had hoped that systems of testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation, would have been built at a much greater scale than was the case so that a second wave of the virus could have been prevented.
In a family Zoom gathering in April, I learned that two of my nephews — one in Ontario and one in Alberta — had lost work because of the pandemic. I remarked that we would know Canada’s governments had finally gotten serious about eliminating the virus when both of them had been hired as contact tracers. Unfortunately, that day never arrived.
Because why? Because of the economy? This leads me to wonder what would improve the economy of Alberta more – 5,000 new coal miners or 5,000 new contact tracers? The answer depends on what one means by wealth. If one views wealth as resource extraction, one might answer coal miners. But if one views wealth as the ability to hug one’s grandchildren without fear, the answer might be contact tracers.
I choose the latter. Health and wealth are not opposites but synonyms I believe. Unfortunately, our society does not agree, and so the pandemic rages, and we are forced to have a more “peaceful” than normal Christmas this year. But this won’t be peace with justice. Christmas 2020 will arrive like the ones before it with too many homeless people, too many people working in unsafe and crowded plants, and too many long-term care residents living without adequate space and support . . .
This morning we heard the second half of Luke’s story of the conception of John the Baptist. Later in his Gospel, Luke shows John as a prophet at the Jordan River. Like Isaiah before him, John calls for justice. He says those with two shirts should share with those who have none, and those with food should help the hungry. He urges tax collectors to stop their exploitation and soldiers to stop extorting people with false accusations.
John’s call for justice is the twin of Advent peace. This is a peace that flows not from the victory of the powerful but from the struggles of the poor. Jesus is born a Prince of Peace. But he is not just the gentle babe as seen in a thousand Christmas cards. He is also a herald of war and struggle.
A few years ago, the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus, in which Kim and I sing, staged a Christmas concert that included a carol that at first struck me as insane. “This Little Babe” depicts the infant Jesus at war with Satan. It is so fast, so rhythmic, and so violent in its imagery that it made me laugh. The words were written in 1595 by a Roman Catholic priest just before he was executed in newly Protestant England. The music was written in 1942 at the height of World War II by the English composer Benjamin Britten.
The carol includes the following description of the Babe of Bethlehem: “With tears he fights and wins the field / His naked breast stands for a shield / His battering shot are babish cries / His arrows looks of weeping eyes / His martial ensigns Cold and Need / And feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.”
The music is fast, so I doubt most concert-goers could understand the words. But this Advent I remember them since the carol’s call to arms seems to fit with Christmas 2020 better than those of years gone by.
For much of 2020, the world has been at war with a virus. I am sad that many of the injustices revealed by this war remain even as I hope the technological wizardry of vaccines will yield victory over the virus next year.
But during this unusual Advent, with a powerful Hope for the rebirth of Love at Christmas; with “No Justice, No Peace!” as a rallying cry; and with Joy surging in our hearts after grieving the losses of a difficult year, I end this reflection with the same warning as last week — watch out friends! Christmas is coming; and I fear it’s going to be awesome.
May it be so. Amen.