Back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the midst of Lent, the symbolism didn’t go unnoticed. Lent, for those who observe, is a season of prayer and fasting, and many imagined that the pandemic would be something like a turbo-charged Lent, a brief period of extended suffering that would soon end with a return to normality.
Nine months later, we now know that Easter never came, and COVID Lent has lasted all year. And we now find ourselves in yet another liturgical season of hope and darkness, still groaning under the weight of a pandemic that lends another round of inescapable spiritual symbolism.
Advent — the month or so before Christmas — is not broadly observed as a season of fasting. Eastern Christian traditions do observe some abstentions during the season, but for most people who realize it’s Advent at all, Advent is simply a month-long celebration of Christmas itself, with treats every day as we count down to December 25. It’s a festive time, not a time for spiritual reflection.
But traditionally Advent has been all about hope and, critically, sin. The Christmas Story — the Incarnation and Nativity of Jesus — isn’t just a happy tale about a special baby that would go on to do great things (and happens to be God made flesh). No, Jesus came to Earth with a specific mission: to free the world from sin. This mission was culminated in Jesus’s death and resurrection some 33 years later, separately observed as the Easter Triduum when, depending upon your theology, Jesus died to take on the punishment for the sins of mankind or Jesus defeated the power of sin by conquering death itself. But as Richard Rohr says, “Christmas is already Easter.” The mission of divine reconciliation cannot be confined to Easter. It began on Christmas and continued throughout Jesus’s life and ministry.
The centrality of sin in the Nativity is often overlooked, but it still creeps into the festive season at least through a few oft-ignored Christmas carol lyrics. The titular angels in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” proclaim “Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled” (the latter clause being far less popular fodder for Christmas cards). And in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” it’s clear that Jesus was born “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” And this, per the rest of the song, is cause for celebration.
Perhaps the most poignant musical treatment of this idea, a couplet that brings me to tears nearly every time I hear it, comes in “O Holy Night,” with the lines “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining / ’Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” What gets me about these lines is the recognition that the world was drowning in sin but pining for deliverance, realizing that its own sinfulness was making it miserable and yearning for a divine power to make things right. On this reading Jesus’s didn’t come to save the world from God’s wrath — Jesus came to save the world from itself.
And this Advent we once again find ourselves in sin and error pining. Jesus’s world had its tyrant kings, foreign oppressors, and religious hypocrites. Today we have government powers that have proven incapable — through willfulness or incompetence — of mounting an effective response to the pandemic, and political leaders who sanctimoniously preach the Gospel of sacrifice and personal responsibility while attending lavish dinner parties and traveling for Thanksgiving. And just as the world itself was writhing in sin when Jesus was born, the pandemic world is plagued with people who refuse to take the pandemic seriously enough or seriously at all. All of this sin — and there’s no other word for it — conspires to maintain Death’s dominion, with 250,000 trophies and counting.
Also like the original Advent, we’re now awaiting salvation from without, this time in the form of vaccines that auspiciously seem scheduled to appear right around Christmas. While the vaccines are the work of human hands rather than divine provenance (though many will no doubt thank God for the vaccine when it arrives, to the chagrin of those who fucking love Science), it’s hard to ignore the parallel between a salvific medicine and the Incarnation, as both are external-seeming forces that are only necessary because we couldn’t save ourselves.
But it’s important to realize that the Nativity wasn’t a happy ending. Sin and conflict continued even after Jesus’s birth. Immediately after he was born, so the story goes, King Herod reacted to the news by slaughtering every male child under two years old in his kingdom in the hopes of killing Jesus. The Holy Family itself had to flee to Egypt to escape this horror. And even Jesus’s ministry is a story of constant conflict. His apostles fought amongst themselves and betrayed, denied and abandoned him. He consistently locked horns with the religious leaders of his day, and of course he was put to death by the Roman authorities.
This conflict continued even after the Resurrection. Jesus returned to incredulous apostles who didn’t recognize him or refused to believe in him. The early church was fraught with bitter divisions, as reported in the Book of Acts. Offshoots like Gnosticism and Marcionism appeared almost immediately, all precursors to the vicious schismatic wars that would increasingly splinter the Church for two millennia. And that’s just the conflict within Christianity.
Jesus himself recognized that he not only wasn’t freeing the world of conflict but in fact creating more of it. In a deeply troubling passage, Jesus declares:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
So much for “Peace on Earth.”
The cause of this irascible conflict, of course, is the sinful nature of mankind which, again, is inextricably bound up in Advent and the Nativity. While the Gospel of John doesn’t narrate the Nativity like Matthew and Luke, John succinctly expresses the theological truth of the Nativity in a few short lines: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Jesus came into a world that was so sinful that it rejected its own Savior (again and again and again).
In her book Inspired, Rachel Held Evans characterized the Bible as a story of mankind’s relationship with God, specifically a cycle of mankind rejecting God and God reconciling with mankind that repeats throughout the Old and New Testaments and continues through today. Any happy ending can only truly be found at the end of Revelation, when universal peace arrives at last after one final period of war and suffering. Until then, we can be spiritually “free” of sin through communion with God. But we cannot be rid of it.
And I fear we’ll see a similar parallel with the eagerly-awaited vaccines. Like the Nativity, the vaccines will be a glorious deliverance, but sin and conflict will continue. Make no mistake, the vaccines will save millions of lives and likely allow a return to something approaching normal life. But the sins that have created so much death and despair won’t go away. The indolence, hypocrisy, and bitter divisions will remain. There will be more pandemics and more vaccines. But there will also be more deaths. There is no vaccine for sin.