Pandemic parallels with the Nativity
"In those days the government advised us all to wear masks and told us to stay home until the pandemic was over." That’s what I imagine we’ll be telling our grandchildren about the Great Covid-19 pandemic.
As I write this in early October, predictions are the pandemic will still be a going concern as we head into Christmas. Official directives will likely require reduced travel, limited social gatherings and modified (or more sadly cancelled) Christmas services.
It certainly won’t be like Christmases we’ve enjoyed and remembered.
As a kid I remember Dad opening the Bible on Christmas Eve and reading those familiar words – "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. … And everyone went to their own town to register" (Luke 2:1,3).
I always thought those lines were the boring part of the story. Let’s get to the fun stuff with angels, shepherds and mangers!
I perceive now, however, that the "those days" of the ancient Christmas story have fascinating parallels to the "these days" of our current reality, parallels we couldn’t have even imagined just a year ago.
Luke’s opening lines affirm this was a real historical event, not just myth. A reader might at first think Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was only an accidental outworking of an arbitrary decree of a power-hungry emperor. Joseph appears to take his fiancée to his hometown just because of an impulsive government mandate.
But suddenly the unsurprising story of bureaucratic over-reach is disrupted by a bizarre event – a supernatural host of angels instructing a ragtag bunch of shepherds to locate a newborn, the long-promised Messiah, wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger in a backwoods village far from Rome. God has broken in and asserted his own Kingship, Caesar Augustus notwithstanding.
What does this mean for us these days?
Today we don’t have decrees coming down from a single global centre of political power, but lately we’ve certainly been learning to comply, like Joseph, with an abundant share of directives ourselves.
And though the ancient decree sought to carry out a global census by sending people to their homes to be counted, have not recent pandemic directives done more to count citizens and return them to their homes than ever before?
I’m struck by how the historical fact of Caesar’s decree is insufficient to hold the details of the story together. If anything, it is the other way around. The decree, the shepherds, the trek to the prophesied town of Bethlehem, the angelic announcements, even the manger and strips of cloths are all random details if they are not divinely orchestrated.
It is only when we read the story of Jesus’ birth with an understanding of God’s sovereign superintendence that the story makes sense.
I believe we need to adopt a similar mindset in these unpredictable, unsettling times. Unless in faith we believe God is truly in control, we will have no semblance of meaning coming out of all this. It would be too bizarre, too disconnected, and frankly too scary to face without the comforting knowledge our loving and sovereign Father is in and over it all.
While Covid-era policy may tell us what, where and with whom we can and cannot do and go, Christians must stand confident that human decrees, directives and decisions —whether good or bad—are incapable of thwarting God’s good purposes (Romans 8:28).
Nothing occurs without God’s sovereign permission. God’s mission will go on. Therefore, we must not lose sight of our calling to bear witness to God’s sovereign Kingdom, even in the utter inconvenience, tragedy and chaos of a pandemic.
In these days, as we’re sequestered at home, maybe we should meditate upon this – when Caesar’s decree sent everyone home 2,000 years ago, it was exactly then that God took the unprecedented step to send His own Son to be with us in flesh, to disrupt the darkness with His living great light.
Maybe the year of our pandemic discontent may just be the birth pangs of either the Lord’s return (Maranatha!) or a preparatory period God is using to rejuvenate our worship, prayer and devotion to the Christ-child. It is then we will get back to work, under new circumstances, with new vision and tools, declaring to the nations, "Gloria in excelsis Deo!"
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.