Fr. Satish Joseph
Advent and the Pandemic: Similar Challenges, Similar Call
This is the first Advent we are observing during a pandemic and this will be the first pandemic Christmas for us. What if I said to you that the attitude and the spirit needed for the season of Advent and the attitude and demeanor needed for dealing with the pandemic are similar? Both the pandemic and Advent make us look forward to something greater than itself – the pandemic towards the day of total recovery, and Advent towards a meaningful celebration of Christ’s incarnation. I also believe that in order to experience the joy of overcoming the pandemic and experience joy of Christmas, we need similar attitudes.
Every Advent is an invitation and an opportunity. And I dare say, so is the pandemic. Both Advent and the pandemic are an invitation to focus on that which is really important and an opportunity to center our lives around that which really matters. I would like to suggest that if we approach this Advent with the right attitude and the right spirit, not only will it help us to prepare for Christmas, but it will also help us to overcome the pandemic and to make the world the kind of world Jesus came to create.
Watchfulness! There is nothing like beginning the Advent season with the words, “Be watchful! Be alert!” When the coronavirus infections reached a surge in March, the scientific community and the CDC advised us to be cautious. Local authorities enforced ‘stay-at-home’ orders and advised people to wear masks. Many of us became cautious, watchful, and alert. On the other hand, many of us were shocked to see people on spring break blatantly throwing all caution to the wind (pun intended). And then there were the protests, the election frenzy, the maskless political rallies, and the July 4th and Labor Day holiday-weekend celebrations. Eight months later, here we are – 13 million infections, 263,000 dead Americans, and since Nov 16, more than 100,000 new infections a day! We were cautioned, “Be watchful! Be alert!”
Today we are paying the price because people did not pay attention to the caution. Today, we begin the season of Advent with those same words, “Be watchful! Be Alert!” Unfortunately, just like the pandemic, for many people Advent has become a time when we throw all caution to the wind. We eat more, spend more, and waste much more. And because we get caught up in the holiday frenzy, it is also possible that we simultaneously pray less, reflect less, and spend less time on silence and solitude. Here is the thing, though. Just as the consequences of disregarding the pandemic warning are serious, the risk of ignoring the Advent caution is also serious. The risk is that when the Master comes, He might find us unprepared, or as the gospel says, “sleeping.” The risk is that we might miss the Savior, and even more, salvation itself. What will we do with Advent? What will we do with the pandemic? I hope we will “be watchful and alert!”
Patient Hope. It is going to be a year since the coronavirus pandemic hit the world. When the pandemic reached its first surge in March, the scientific community told us that what the whole world needed to do together was hunker down together. Not only did we not work together, but people soon began to lose patience. Yes, there were compelling reasons for us get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Livelihoods were at stake and the mental health of adults and children could not be risked. But as summer came, it became not just about employment, livelihood, and mental health. The tragedy was that even those who could afford it and those who were healthy simply lost their patience. Summer vacations, false sense of patriotism, the unsatiable hunger for sports, and an impending election season got the better of us. I am not saying that these things are not important. But if we had the patience to hunker down together short term, we could have benefitted long term. But then, we are not good at patience in real life, are we? 4G won’t do. A faster 5G feeds our lack of patience. Black Friday must begin on the Monday before because we simply can’t wait. We need Christmas in July. In my experience in the confessional, impatience is one of the most confessed sin.
Passages like today’s gospel reading (Mt 13:33-37), were written to urge people to be patient especially as the coming of Christ was delayed. People were becoming impatient, to let their guard down, and become callous and complacent. As we begin this pandemic Advent, let us learn from the mistakes we have made with the pandemic. Let us not treat Advent in the same way we have dealt with the pandemic. Avoid the impatience to make it Christmas before it IS Christmas. Let us patiently wait in hope and let Advent prepare us for the great feast of our redemption. The pandemic demands patience, and so does Advent. Patience with the pandemic can create a better world. Patience during Advent can lead to a new experience of Christs coming.
Self-Realization and Conversion. That brings me to the most important point that both Advent and the pandemic present – self-realization and conversion. Today’s first reading from Isaiah is one of the most poignant passages in all of scripture. The context is the Babylonian exile. The people feel terribly let down by themselves and totally abandoned by God. And then there is that brilliant moment of self-realization that leads to conversion. It leads to words like, “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind” (Is 64:5). If the rulers, the false prophets, the powerful and influential people of Judah had had this kind of honesty when God had spoken to them through the prophets, the Babylonian invasion and exile could have been avoided.
Today, with the pandemic, we are in an exile of sorts. In reality, without a certain self-realization and conversion we will squander the promise and hope that both the pandemic and Advent hold. Last Friday, there was an Op-Ed by Pope Francis in the New York Times. He said regarding the pandemic: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” To realize this dream, like the exiled people of God we have to be able to say, “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter” (Is 64:7).Both Advent and the pandemic are an invitation and an opportunity to allow God to transform us, or as Pope Francis says, “dream big.” As we begin this pandemic Advent, let us pray for the same kind of honesty, the self-realization, and conversion that the people of God show. Let us become like clay in the potter’s hand.
Let me end this reflection with the words we began, “Be watchful! Be Alert!” If we do we will both overcome the pandemic and have a meaningful Christmas even in the midst of the pandemic.