Spreading hope…. and immunity in Advent
News, anticipation, surprise: Advent is the season they were made for. From John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness, calling people to renewal of life because the Saviour of the World has come; the Angel Gabriel telling Mary that, against all likelihood, she was to become the mother of God’s Son; to the rush of planning and preparation that precedes even a modest celebration, or the gift-filled Advent Calendars ramping up the excitement weeks in advance – it’s all about deciding how best we respond to the news that Christmas is coming.
This year, after months of waiting, of restraint, of uncertainty, of depriving ourselves of so many simple pleasures, and – for many – the ongoing sorrow of bereavement, the anxiety of illness or the worry of unemployment, there is new hope on the horizon, too. Bringing – like Christmas – potential global good cheer and rejoicing, we have the prospect of a vaccine against Covid-19, spelling the end of pandemic-generated restrictions, and allowing us to live fully human lives again. Thanks be to God for the ingenuity of scientists, the international co-operation in the cause of global health, the heroic feats of organization at the vaccination centres, and the courage of the early vaccination testers!
But there are whispers of fear. Has the vaccine been rushed through, in our eagerness to return to normal? Are there ethical reservations about the material it has been made from or tested on? Might some of the more bizarre rumours just possibly be true, that the vaccine is designed to harm or control us in some way? There have been medical mistakes before, and this is such a new situation. After so many changes of policy, some rather reckless promises, and the questionable success of some of the techno-fixes we added to our phones, can we believe that we are being told the truth?
Doubts and fake news have from the outset been as much part of Advent as joyful anticipation. Who was really the father of Mary’s child? (Even Joseph started off unconvinced by her story!) The Magi spotted King Herod’s hoax about seeking to ‘worship’ the new-born king; but Herod discovered the birthplace anyway, and a terrible massacre ensued. John the Baptist was imprisoned and eventually executed for exposing the truth about the corruption and immorality of Israel’s rulers, as Jesus began his ministry. How do we know what to believe?
It is the calling of the prophet to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; between what brings life, healing and wholeness, and what brings destruction, fear, and strife. As Christians and fellow-citizens of the world, we are called to love one another as we love ourselves, and to prioritise the care of the most vulnerable. If we avoid falling ill ourselves, the resources to care for others will be protected. Although not yet certain that the new vaccines prevent the spread of Covid-19, it is possible that in preventing illness in ourselves we will avoid passing it on to those around us. Reducing the total amount of sickness and infection in the world will ultimately benefit not just our nearest and dearest, but also our less privileged neighbours who don’t have the benefit of advanced and accessible medical care.
We are anxious to know the truth, for ‘the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32) – so consider where information is coming from. Is it a respected provider of serious news – or more associated with gossip and scandal? Are the sources clear, and if in doubt can you check them? What company do they keep: do authorities you trust, trust them? ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18) – and whilst we may not exactly ‘love’ our information providers and news outlets(!), if we respect and trust them because they have proved reliable in the past, we will be less fearful when they tell us something new.
And to match, those on the side of delivering advice and information in these challenging times need to earn our trust. Questions deserve to be answered properly, and alternatives explored if genuine concerns remain. We are fallible humans who can’t control everything; but forgiveness and repentance are available if mistakes are made.
We live in a rich country which has been able to source the Covid-19 vaccine and deliver it ahead of anyone else, but on this historic occasion our privilege may spread the benefit beyond ourselves. As the WHO director put it, “No-one is safe until everyone is safe”. So let us be brave, prophetic, responsibly inquisitive – and bare our arms to spread some immunity along with the good cheer this Christmas.