“Even in the inevitable moments when all seems hopeless, men know that without hope they cannot really live, and in agonizing desperation they cry for the bread of hope.”

Martin Luther King Jr.[1]

2020 has been hopeless and fearful. None of us has been able to live the kind of life we expected, the kind of life we hoped for. Instead, we’ve spent most of this year protecting ourselves from a frightening, invisible killer.

This virus is dangerous because it’s so contagious. Just when we hoped to return to something like a normal life, it’s broken out again all over Sydney. It dashed our hopes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Our hopes for eventually overcoming this disease have been founded on discovering a vaccine. Pfizer’s announcement about the success of their vaccine was like Christmas. “Today is a great day for science and humanity,”[2] their press release said, and proceeded to announce good news of great joy for all people across the world. Today, in the laboratories of Pfizer, a saviour has been born for you. He is BNT162b2 the Vaccine.

And that’s also why the new, even more infectious strain of the virus which has emerged in England is so terrifying.[3] Will this new strain circumvent the vaccine? Does it mean the virus will mutate faster than we can keep up, mocking all our efforts at long-term control? Have all our hopes of a return to a normal, safe, fear-free life been dashed? Is a lifetime of fearful self-protection all we can hope for?

Christmas is a time of hope. It is a day of hope fulfilled. Because we celebrate God’s promise to be personally present within this world and to rescue the universe from the powers of death and destruction.

The significance of Christmas does not depend on precisely identifying the day it happened. Its significance lies in its supernatural, miraculous, unique nature.

Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrate Christmas on 25 December. Eastern Orthodoxy Christians celebrate it on 6 January. Those two dates were estimated from two different traditions about the date on which the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would miraculously conceive a child without sexual intercourse. Those traditions can be traced back to the third century. Elements of pre-Christian paganism only started to be associated with Christmas in the twelfth century. Christmas was never a ‘Christianisation’ of a pagan festival. Pagan embellishments of Christmas represent the kind of decline from proper Christian worship which eventually motivated the Protestant Reformation.[4]

But the significance of Christmas does not depend on precisely identifying the day it happened. Its significance lies in its supernatural, miraculous, unique nature.

‘God’ is super-natural, above and beyond ‘nature’. He/she/it, however conceived by different religions, is not restricted by the limitations of this world.

Christmas celebrates the uniquely Christian understanding that precisely because God is not restricted, he is able to miraculously become human without ceasing to be fully divine. And that he did so as a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth – not Balasuriya of Kolkotta, Chan of Shanghai, or McTavish of Glasgow. As that particular man, he performed miracles, died, and rose, to offer hope. Hope not just to his own people, the Jews, but hope to all people everywhere. Hope of an ongoing, indestructible life with God, in a renewed environment free of all disease and distress.

This Christian hope is indestructible because it is based on the other supernatural, unique miracle at the other end of Jesus’ earthly ministry: his resurrection from the dead. Our knowledge of that unique, supernatural, miraculous resurrection is founded on reliable testimony by eyewitnesses who had no credible motivation to lie. That testimony has been reliably recorded in the documents now commonly known as the New Testament – which, at the time it was written, was revolutionary, blasphemous literature produced by people who were subject to multiple minority status.

This is the kind of hope we need during the hopelessness and fear of a global pandemic.

Christian hope does not mock earthly, secular science, and medicine. But Christian hope is not restricted by secular limitations either. Therefore this hope can continue to energise us to care for others, even when all earthly hopes fade. It’s the kind of hope that motivates research to discover medical solutions to disease. And, even if the virus mutates too fast for scientists to keep up, will motivate us to care for the sick, the weak, the elderly, and the vulnerable – even at the risk of our own lives.

But embracing Christian hope requires humility. The humility to recognise the limitations of human effort within this world. The humility to worship Jesus, not science, as God the saviour. And the humility to accept vaccines as a gift from God, through those intelligent, learned, hard-working scientists.

Will we have the humility to enjoy the hope of Christmas, and the end of this hopeless, fearful year?

I certainly hope so.

[1] ‘A Knock at Midnight’, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, 11 June 1967.

[2] ‘Pfizer And Biontech Announce Vaccine Candidate Against Covid-19 Achieved Success In First Interim Analysis From Phase 3 Study’, Monday 9 Nov 2020, online at https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-announce-vaccine-candidate-against.

[3] ‘New COVID-19 strain in UK confirmed to be more infectious, Boris Johnson imposes urgent coronavirus measures’, ABC News 20 Dec 2020, online at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-20/uk-new-strain-covid-19-more-infectious-spreads-faster-urgent/13001198.

[4] Andrew McGowan, ‘How December 25 Became Christmas’, Biblical Archaeology Society, 25 Sept 2020: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/how-december-25-became-christmas.

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