Someone asked me how reliable is the Gospels in the Bible? This is part of an article by Blomberg.
“Non-Christian religions often allege that the Gospels as they now appear cannot be trusted because the text has been greatly corrupted. This allegation has virtually no evidence to support it. There are 2,328 manuscripts and manuscript fragments surviving from the earliest centuries of the Christian church and representing all portions of the Gospels. The earliest fragment of any portion of the NT currently in existence is the John Rylands papyrus fragment (P52) of John 18:31–33, 37–38, which probably dates to c. A.D. 125 or within about thirty years of the original composition of the Fourth Gospel. Twenty-one papyri containing major sections of one or more Gospels can be dated to the third and fourth centuries, while five virtually complete NTs survive from the fourth and fifth centuries. Compared with the numbers and ages of manuscripts which have survived for most other ancient documents, including many believed to contain reliable accounts of historical events, this evidence is overwhelming.
As a result, textual critics have been able to reconstruct a highly reliable prototype of what the original Gospel writers undoubtedly wrote. Estimates suggest that from ninety-seven to ninety-nine percent of the original text is securely recoverable. More than fifty-four percent of all of the verses in the Gospels are entirely free of textual variants, and the vast majority of those which remain have no bearing on questions of historicity. Modern editions of the Greek NT (Nestle-Aland; UBS) print the textual variants which have any significant effect on meaning, and most modern English translations use footnotes to alert readers to the most disputed texts (e.g., Mt 6:13b; Mk 16:9–20; Jn 7:53–8:11).”
C. L. Blomberg, “Gospels (Historical Reliability),” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 292.
The most common reconstruction of the literary interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels has Matthew and Luke depending on at least two written sources—Mark and Q* (a hypothetical document accounting for material Matthew and Luke have in common which is not found in Mark; see Synoptic Problem). Q is usually dated to the 50s and Mark is assumed to have utilized source material at least that old. With Christ’s crucifixion no earlier than A.D. 30, the time gap between events and written accounts is reduced to about twenty years
C. L. Blomberg, “Gospels (Historical Reliability),” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 294.
The virus, when it came, came like a thief in the night. It was unexpected, and we were unprepared. Though there was some news about a viral outbreak in China in November 2019, nobody paid it much heed. After all, there were always sporadic outbreaks of chicken and swine flu. The last worrisome outbreaks were Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and Ebola in 2018. SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. The illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained. Closer to home, SARS was limited to Singapore and, for some unknown reason, did not cross the causeway. With MERS, we in Malaysia were on alert because of the large number of people going to the Middle East. Fortunately, no cases were reported here. Ebola and Africa seemed far away.
In December 2019, when I was at Disneyland with my grandchildren, I came across a more “teenage” Mickey Mouse than I am used to. Disney as a company is well aware of the necessity to reinvent itself for each generation, hence the need for an updated and cool Mickey with his coffee. Again, I am reminded of the need for the Church to reinvent itself for each generation in order to remain relevant.
I am not talking about core doctrines here. These should not change. I refer more to how we do church and are the church for the present generation. I remember reading somewhere about how the church is only one generation away from extinction. Steve Rabey, in his book on Authentic Faith, said, “This generation is falling through the cracks of Christendom and the modern church is sleepwalking their way through oblivion.” There is an urgency to review and revise how we do and are to be the church in this interconnected, digital citizen generation with the Internet of Everything.
Little did I know how my thinking would be brought to the test in the subsequent months when the storm warnings were sounded in Wuhan China about a new coronavirus, initially named novel SARS-CoV-2, because of its close resemblance to the SARS virus. Alarming news started coming in rapidly. The infected and death tolls started rising. Different countries were reporting cases, and the global spread was impressive. Then countries started reacting by placing their populations under lockdown. We were told of the need to “flatten the curve,” meaning to contain the spread by lockdown while allowing time for our healthcare facilities to be expanded. We observed healthcare facilities being overwhelmed in Italy and Spain as the virus spread.
Since COVID-19 is caused by an RNA virus, I expected it to mutate. I expected that, like its cousin, the SARS virus, it would mutate and become non-lethal in a few months; in fact, I was optimistic that it would be over by July 2020. Little did I know that, by limiting its spread, we were also limiting its mutation. By the end of 2020 we have gone through a roller coaster ride revealing the brokenness of our society, removing the delusions we have been living with, and resetting the way we shall live in this future.
This book chronicles some of my reflections as I struggle to find love, faith, and hope in this fateful year. It started with apprehension as I watched nation after nation fall under the onslaught of this pandemic. What is worrisome is that these countries are developed countries, with superb healthcare infrastructures. At home, we were celebrating the auspicious Chinese New Year of the metal rat. Then came the lockdowns and the orders restricting movement. It was sobering, because this is the first time I have experienced travel restrictions. With the lockdowns and the closing of onsite church services, I am forced to rethink who we are as a church and how we do church. I had more opportunities to explore cyberspace as the churches went online. I also try to understand the digital church in its various manifestations and how it will work with the physical churches.
Malaysian Christians marked themselves as safe in the Covid-19 pandemic 2020. We are still here. We request prayers. Last year was a roller coastal year of ups and downs. There were periods of intense fear accompanied by long periods of extreme boredom. The pandemic came like a thief in the night and took us by surprise. We were aware of some early storm warnings which were sounded in Wuhan China about a new coronavirus, initially named the novel SARS-CoV-2, because of its close resemblance to the SARS virus. Alarming news started coming in rapidly. The infected and death tolls started rising. Different countries were reporting cases, and the global spread was impressive. Then countries started reacting by placing their populations under lockdowns. We observed healthcare facilities being overwhelmed in Italy and Spain as the virus spread. We, however, were too busy celebrating the Chinese New Year of the Metal Rat to pay much heed until the storm hit. The rapid sale of toilet paper amused us until it was time for us to rush and buy. Our government informed us that we need to ‘flatten the curve’, not referring to weight control, but to contain the spread by lockdowns or Movement Order Control (MCO) which will allow time for our healthcare facilities to be expanded. What brought the message home was the lockdown on 18 March 2020 when the causeway was closed and we were all restricted to our home. Since then, we have experienced MCO, Extended MCO, Recovery MCO, and unfortunately at the time of writing back to MCO. A state of emergency has been declared nationwide because of the increasing number of cases.
A pandemic disrupts the function of society by revealing, removing, and resetting it. The Black Plague which almost decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century laid the foundation for modern Europe. Whether this pandemic will result in improved revitalized Malaysian churches remains to be seen. What it does was to reveal the complacency of many Malaysian Christians. We have settled into our own comfort zones. Aside from occasional forays to the outside world, most of us are quite happy doing church. We are at peace with the society we live in and have comes to terms with its challenges. What we did not or refuse to realize is how broken ourselves, our churches, and our society are. The SARS-CoV-2 RNA virus did not break our society. It is already broken. We have been propping it up it up it so that it continues to function. Society’s brokenness arise from marketing, unrealistic branding, doubtful morality, and borrowed money. The church in this society is broken through being inward-looking, and existing on a form of ‘cheap grace’ without the need for accountability, commitment, and involvement by getting our hands dirty. A few Christians did most of the work while the rest side back and critize. More efforts were spent looking after the welfare of church members than in reaching out to the poor, exploited, sick, and destitute around. Many of the Christians are not even aware of the millions of migrant workers in the country, nor of those who are living with disabilities and needing help.
The pandemic removes all the props and reveals our brokenness. With the lockdown, all churches are not allowed to hold their services and meetings on-site. This was a shock to the churches in Malaysia. No one was prepared for this. To many Christians, the Sunday service was the sum total of their faith. There was a deep sense of depression and lamentation in the church at that time. A webinar Moving Beyond Lament: Biblical, Pastoral, and Spirituality Perspectives was held to explore this.
Unfortunately, the lamentation was not one of biblical repentance and seeking the Lord, but of not being able to do church the way we are used to. For the first half of the year, many churches did not do anything except to wait for things to get back to ‘normal’. It must be noted that during this early period of the pandemic, bigger urban churches that are more techno-savvy moved online faster than the smaller and rural churches. These churches are also more active on social media. When the middle of the year came and Christians begin to realize that the virus is not going away anytime soon, they began to review their situation and began their reset the way they do church.
Christians in Malaysia faces a lot of challenges when they started to reset the way they do and be the church in the new pandemic era. The lockdowns have caused a lot of economic hardships as the economy has literally come to a standstill and needs to restart. Workers had their pay cut, overtime allowances trimmed and even retrenched or sacked. Thousands of families dropped below the poverty line. Jobs are hard to find. Churches and faith-based organizations are hard hit, and some are forced to close. However, in the midst of the doom and gloom, some interesting trends appeared during this resetting period.
First, more and more churches are moving online. Churches have expanded their services with direct streaming, and YouTube and Facebook Live. The smaller churches are starting online services. What is encouraging is that the larger churches who have the expertise are training the smaller churches on how to stream their services. The infrastructure for the Internet is not well developed in Malaysia. Internet available is spotty or non-existent in many areas. Mobile networks are better and many smaller churches especially indigenous churches in East Malaysia are connecting and even conducting their services on their mobile phones by email or Whatsapp.
Second, the small groups in churches seen to be revitalized. Even as Christians cannot meet in church services, they become more active in small or cell groups. Many use the media platform Zoom, Google Meet, or Lark. Attendance in small groups has gone up. They even have members joining in from overseas. More Christians have taken up leadership in these small groups which is a very encouraging trend indeed.
Third, Christians have become more ecumenical as they begin to attend service services and listening to sermons and teaching which is outside their denominational borders. Many have expressed wonder and awe at the exposure of different traditions of Christianity. Others feel they are receiving better teaching and know more about the bible and Christianity. With time during the lockdown, some have taken up theological courses from institutions around the world. The pandemic has pushed Malaysian Christians to become global Christians in new and meaningful ways.
Four, there seems to be a new level of collaboration between the churches in Malaysia. When the first wave of the virus in Malaysia was contained and there were indications that on-site church services may be allowed, a group of Christians collaborated to draw up the first guidance of Standard Operation Protocol (SOP) for the reopening of churches. This document is distributed free and form the basis of many denominations in drafting up their SOPs, not only in Malaysia but also in other countries. A webinar Guidance for Churches in the Post-Covid Era was held to inform the church leaders.
Five, many churches are involved in buying and bringing groceries to the poor during the lockdowns. It is heartening to note the innovative way the churches reaching out and meeting the needs of their neighbor in these difficult times. A group of churches in Johor Bahru receive a few tonnes of unsold vegetables from Cameron Highlands, repack these in one of the church compound, and gave out these vegetables to about 6,000 poor families. Another church looks after 600 families and makes sure they have enough food and their children receive an education. Yet another reached out to the Orang Asli villages in the interior of Peninsular Malaysia.
Finally, with the uncertainty, anxiety, and threat of the virus, many Malaysian Christians are drawing closer to God. When all our delusions of control have been stripped away, we realize how dependent we are on our Lord. When all human machineries have failed to control the virus, we are left with only our faith. Prayer meetings are better attended than before. More Christians are reading the bible and attending bible studies. Interest in spirituality has shot up.
The journey is not over yet. The virus is still rampaging the country. While there is the promise of the vaccine, none has been sighted on our shores yet. So what news from Malaysia? We are good. How about you?
There has been some concern that the Covid-19 vaccines were made from fetal cells of aborted fetal cells. Covid-19 infection is caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus which is an RNA virus. Were aborted human fetal cells used in the creation of Covid-19 vaccines?
Vaccines developed from fetal cells lines were not new. Pharmaceutical companies find that cell lines are perfect for vaccines to grow. The fetal cell lines used were derived in the 1960’s and 1970’s from two elective abortions that were not performed for the purpose of vaccine development. Fetal cell lines were used to create vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies. Only two fetal cells lines were used: HEK-293: A kidney cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1972, and PER.C6: A retinal cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1985. No other fetal cells from terminated fetus or abortions were used. No new abortions were done to obtain new fetal cell lines.Of the Covid-19 vaccines, only live-attenuated or inactivated virus vaccines, and viral vector vaccines used fetal cell lines. Some of these are using animal cell lines while other human fetal cell lines. Examples are AstraZeneca, CanSino, Gamaleya, and Janssen. Other DNA, RNA, and Protein vaccines do not need fetal cell lines for its development. Examples of the RNA vaccines are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. For a full list see here: Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lineshttps://lozierinstitute.org/update-covid-19-vaccine…/
To those who are concerned about the moral implications of using vaccines derived from aborted fetal cells, the RNA, DNA, and Protein vaccines will not be a problem. It is only as we face the issue of live attenuated or inactivation vaccines that the problem arises. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church offers some wisdom on this issue. From Thomas Aquinas, we learn of the principle of natural law, the principle of totality, and the principle of double effect. The principle of natural law states that the “Natural Law consists of first judgment that good should be pursued and evil avoided”. It means that whatever action should seek for the greater good and not for greater harm. A vaccine is for the greater good. It gives some protection for the vulnerable and those at high risk especially the older persons, those with chronic medical conditions, and those whose immune system are weak. It also aims at creating herd immunity to protect those who did not have an opportunity to be vaccinated. In natural law, we should aim to do good, not evil.
In his second principle, the law of totality, Aquinas noted that “the body may be changed only to ensure the proper functioning of the whole body.” He pointed out that it is our duty to be responsible steward not only of our own bodies but that of our neighbours. A vaccine enables better functioning of the body against the virus. Aquinas may not be aware of vaccination but he was aware of plagues and pestilences.
The third and final principle from Aquinas is the principle of double effect. Aquinas taught “The act must be good or at least morally neutral. The moral agent must intend only the good effect and bad effect must not be the means of bringing about the good effect. The good and the bad effect must be proportional.” He was saying that sometimes you have to do something bad so that some good will emerge. For example, if a pregnant woman has an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when the fetus is implanted not in the uterus but in one of her fallopian tubes. After growing to a certain size, the fetus will rupture the fallopian tube and the mother will bleed to death. The doctor may have to go in to remove the fetus in order to save the mother’s life. Without an operation, both will die. However, removing the fetus is what we understand as abortion. The principle of double effect is abortion though a negative action was done with the intention of a good effect, the survival of the mother. The fetus died so that the mother may live.
Aquinas’ teaching may have an impact on how we think about fetal cell lines. These fetal cells line were derived from two abortions done 30-40 years ago. Yet the death of these two fetuses are providing a legacy to ensure others keep on living. Two negative events are providing many positive effects.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. As I mentioned, not all Covid-19 vaccines are made from human fetus cells. What is essential is that enough persons need to vaccinated for their own individual and their neighbours’ protection.
The year 2020, as it turned out, was a year to reckon with. At the very beginning, I mused that the pandemic would shine a light on everyone as they navigate the unknown. Like standing in your undergarments in the middle of an auditorium with the spotlight on you. A frightening nightmare! No one, not even the most bold person would welcome that kind of transparency. Instead, we desire the kind of privacy and safety that shields us from vulnerability. Without a choice, the pandemic has exposed much of that vulnerability, showing what we did and didn’t do in response to all of the changes around us.
To manage a business, lead staff and counsel clients, I have spent too many long nights thinking about this. Especially when working with candidates for public office who stepped into a brighter spotlight than they might ever have imagined before signing on to a campaign. But this also applies to other ‘servant leaders’ who may have grown accustomed to leading from behind but now have to stand up front where the spotlight is the brightest. Everyone, myself included, have faltered to a degree in stepping up to the front in the face of the unprecedented. If there was ever a notion that with enough effort, we can be ‘perfect in every way’ or we can be ‘everything to everyone,’ the validity of that idea was certainly challenged this past year. But while none of us is perfect, I have seen some heroic, extraordinary efforts from people who stepped out of their comfort zones.
These include doctors and nurses who went above and beyond the call to help COVID-19 patients and ended up succumbing to the virus themselves. Or, leaders who continue to forge ahead into the unknown to create a safer community for everyone to live and work in. Some of these efforts may not work out, but they have sparked other ideas that may. In the last six months, I have been an eyewitness to the courage and bravery of these few. Certainly, performing in the bright spotlight is not for the faint of heart. The spotlight of an awards ceremony is one thing, but this type of spotlight requires a different kind of boldness.
There was an earnest call for leadership and resiliency in 2020. While it was resoundingly aimed at elected officials in the public arena, it was also compelling each of us as individuals to step up and do our part. There were no spectator seats in 2020; everyone was pushed onto the playing field under the spotlights. What you did and didn’t do were seen. But what is more important than what others may have seen of you, are the profound insights you discover in the mirror under those spotlights.
If we fast-forward, 10 or maybe 20 years from now, and we are asked by a five- or ten-year-old what we did to help others during the pandemic of 2020, what would we say?
Throughout history during times of great adversity, we see stories of courageous people who took great risks upon themselves to serve something greater than themselves. They chose not to be victims of circumstance and did not seek to be heroes. They just did what was right and did not let the possibility of failure or personal harm prevent them from going ahead with it.
One example is Sir Nicholas Winton, a young British stockbroker who did something truly incredible in 1939. He risked his life to save 669 mostly Jewish children in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust by ensuring their safe passage to Britain. And then, like a real hero, he never spoke of it again until fifty years later when his wife found a scrapbook in the attic of their home that contained the names, pictures, and documents of the Holocaust victims that he saved. Why did he do it? He never really explained, though he offered a humble rationale in an interview with The New York Times in 2001: “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
How about Harriet Tubman? She was a slave and later prominent abolitionist who had escaped from a plantation and was partway through a near-90 mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia, and freedom. She left Dorchester County, Maryland, in September and travelled by night, journeying through Delaware, guided by the North Star (Hōkūpa‘a, in Hawaiian is the same star used by Polyneisan navigators). In the years that followed, Tubman returned many times to Maryland to rescue others via the so-called “underground railroad,” a network of safe houses used to spirit slaves from the South to the free states in the North. She would help at least 70 people – family, friends, and strangers – escape slavery, taking enormous risks with her own hard-won freedom. She travelled in a variety of elaborate disguises and armed herself with a revolver.
We may not imagine ourselves stepping up to be heroes like Sir Winton or Harriet Tubman. Perhaps they didn’t imagine their heroism when they first stepped up, too. But perhaps they knew it was a truth that can’t be avoided.
There is an old Okinawan saying (probably with Chinese roots) that goes like this, “Ten shiru, chi shiru, onore shiru.” Translated, it means, “Heaven knows, Earth knows, I know.” My interpretation: there is no hiding from the truth: Heaven where we came from knows; the Earth where we will be buried knows; and yes, you know, too what needs to be done and whether you are doing it or not. That is the ultimate spotlight.
I have completed one academic year of online teaching paediatrics to year 4 medical students of the Clinical School Johor Bahru, Monash University Malaysia. All institutions of learning were closed with the implementation of the Control Movement Order (MCO) and its various permutations. All teaching has to be done online. Campuses are closed as are hospitals teaching wards. Medical students are not allowed to go the wards in the hospitals and to interact with patients. Monash students are lucky in that the university has the foresight to create an excellent and well equipped online library a few years ago, so the students never lack for reading resources. There is, of course, always the Internet. Online teaching, in a way, is not new to me. I have been involved in moderating online courses in evidence-based medicine, and healthcare for Monash year 4 students for the last 10 years. The changes are in teaching clinical paediatrics which we used to do in small groups in the campus and on the bedside of patients in the hospital. It is a challenging exhausting year. Yet, in many ways, it has been a fruitful year in the many lessons I acquired while teaching online clinical medicine.
Firstly, I have to rework most of my teaching materials. Without face-to-face interactions, lectures needed to rework into smaller, captivating, and digestible chunks. It is not realistic to expect students to sit through an hour lecture watching you speak on a computer screen. I cannot do that, so I do not expect this younger generation that is used to sound bites and shorter demand to their attention span. So instead of giving a lecture, I have uploaded my revised lectures to the university Moodle. I expect the students to view these lectures on their own time before we come together in our face-to-face Zoom sessions. Then the Zoom sessions will only be used to highlight certain main points I want to emphasis.
Reformatting my teaching materials mean, not only my delivery but also considering how students will learn their clinical contents. I teach case-based tutorials. In previous years, the students will clerk a patient in the ward and present it in our weekly sessions. Now, I have to prepare clinical case studies. When I describe a patient to the student, I am sure without the nuanced previous encounter with patients, the students cannot fully grasp the significant of what we are discussing. It becomes just an intellectual exercise, abate an interesting one. Talking about a child with congestive heart failure due to an enlarged heart is different from standing at the bedside of a small emaciated child, gasping to breathe, and seeing the movements of the heart beneath the thin ribcage. None can forget such an experience. The closest I can do is to search Youtube for video of a child with a similar condition.
Secondly, we usually meet on Zoom which is an excellent platform for watching disembodied digital spirits. The technology is advanced enough for us to see each other in real time, share our screens, and break out into small groups. “You are muted” became our greeting cry! I have spent an entire academic year interacting with students who are digital images. I have yet to meet them in real life. I guess, I am to them, another digital image too. I love teaching because I can interact with real life students. I get to know these students. Over the years, they have become, in some ways, my extended family. I believe that more of medicine, or in my case, paediatrics is caught than taught. It is my hope that I convey to my students through my presence who a good doctor should be (or should not be, as my faults will illustrate). This I cannot do through Zoom. I sense I am just another interactive avatar in a game to them.
I am not saying Zoom is bad. As a teaching tools, it is useful to convey information. Transfer of information, as most educator will highlight, is only a small part of learning. It is high tech, but low touch. Medicine is high tech and high touch. It is the human touch aided by technology.
The technology is here but the telecommunication infrastructure in Malaysia is lacking in many areas. All the students are back at home as the campus is closed. Internet connectivity is excellent in some areas, spotty in some areas, and non existence in others. Zoom is an Internet-based application. Some students have Wifi networks while others try to login using only their phone networks. Hence some students are dropping in and out (often not willingly) during a Zoom session. To preserve their connectivity, they often switch off their video. I appreciate their reason for doing so, but with video and sound off, I often wonder whether they are there at all!
Thirdly, going online made us global teachers and students. We are awakened to the fact that there is so much resources in this digital space. There are so many lectures, clinical photos, case studies, videos of surgeries, and information available not only on the Monash website but in the Internet. As a teacher, I realized that I do not have to reinvent the wheel. I can point students to resources by better teachers and institutions. They, in turn, point me to resources I find useful for my own learning. This vast treasure on the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because there is much information available, a curse because it does not engage the mind in independent critical thinking.
In Zoom session, I often divide the students into small breakout rooms and give each a topic to research and present in 10 minutes. I am often amazed at how much these students can do in 10 minutes. They come up with very impressive PowerPoint presentations. The students are experts in finding information and in ‘cut and paste’. However, they have problems when it comes to sieving through the information to come to a diagnosis for a patient, or to see the underlying medical principle. They lack the deductive logical thinking skills essential for medical practice. They are slave to the algorithms of clinical guidelines.
Finally, in this academic year of living online, I wonder how the students interact with one another. The clinical school is a temple of learning. This learning comes not only from the formal learning but also by informal and the null curriculum. Online teaching helps to fulfil formal learning but not so much in the others. Learning occurs in interactions between teachers and students. It also important between students themselves. We learn from one another. The clinical school is actually a village. For clinical students, the chief ‘enemies’ are the teachers and the university system. They need each other to prove themselves worthy to their enemies. This builds comraderies and relationship. Students’ relationships teaches them how to work as a team, be resilient in stormy times, and be self-directive. All these are part of the system of clinical education.
The pandemic gives me an opportunity to teach medical students online for one academic year. There are advantages and disadvantages of teaching online especially using Zoom. It also offers an opportunity to re-examine the way of teaching and learning in teachers and students in general. We do not know what the following year will bring. Perhaps another academic year of learning online. Or perhaps not. Let us never forget the lessons we learnt this year. Perhaps it is a good year, after all.
Christmas is not postponed or canceled. With the upsurge of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks all over the world, countries, and cities which have been gradually relaxing their pandemic restrictions for the Christmas season are restricting their prevention measures again. This has been a roller coaster year where the pandemic plays a game of ups and downs with the nations. Countries that have declared themselves pandemic free a few months ago are experiencing an upsurge of cases. The emergency rollout of the new vaccines is a light in an otherwise dark year. The restriction of preventive rules will result in churches holding services for a smaller number of members or only having online services. The normal Christmas cheer of frenzy shopping, partying, and caroling will be restricted or dampened. This has led to some news media to report that ‘Christmas this year is canceled’.
Christmas which derived from the Middle English word of Christ’s Mass is actually a celebration of an event that happened more than two thousand years ago. It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. This is a fact and cannot be canceled, no matter how much spin we apply to it. The celebration of Christmas cannot be canceled. Christmas celebration is not the holiday merrymaking, shopping, Christmas trees and presents, caroling, special church services, or family gatherings. It is a celebration because many years ago when the shepherds in the field heard that the savior was born and found that it is true. This savior, named Jesus is God incarnate. He is fully God, yet fully human. This is a step in the redemption of all human beings to do what we cannot, but made possible by God; the salvation of all humankind. The celebration of Christmas happens in the reconciliation of the relationship of all of mankind and God, and all of mankind with one another. Hence the refrain: ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to men’. This type of celebration cannot be canceled or postponed, not even during a pandemic. This pandemic has shut down the cultural trappings of the Christmas season, leaving with us only the basics in lockdown. However, the basics are more than enough. Christian celebration is Immanuel, roughly translated as God with us.
We are not the first generation to be shut down by a global pandemic. There have been many pandemics in the past, and many more will come until Jesus comes again. The second coming of Jesus is the other reason we celebrate Christmas. Jesus’ second coming will bring to an end all suffering and tears. In the meantime, let us be grateful that we survived the pandemic so far. As we slow down to the end of the year, let us reflect on the year with gratefulness. There is always something to be grateful for. And we shall bring this gratefulness into the New Year. We shall enter the New Year with gratefulness and high expectations. We shall carry on and adapting to the new circumstances. Human normalcy is adapting to change. Hence there is no new or old normalcy. A wise man once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” We shall learn to cope and even to thrive in this Christmas season.
Julian of Norwich, an English mystic, encouraged us with “But all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” It was not some idealistic saying but one born of experience and pain. Julian lived during the times of the Black Death (1348-1350). According to her book Showings (the long version), Julian spent 15 years and more walled up in her cell against a church wall, immersed in a deep, faithful struggle to understand the meaning of these words. Her conclusion was that human beings will survive and thrive, not because of their own efforts, but by the Love of God. Such is the message of Christmas.
Finally let us not forget the poor, the sick, and the marginalized amongst us. It is too easy to forget them as we strive to be safe and to survive. They are the ones who suffer the most in any pandemic. The socio-economic consequences of the pandemic have driven many people below the poverty line. Financial giving to many non-governmental agencies and faith-based organizations have nose-dived. The need is greater than ever. If you have survived or even thrived in this first year of the pandemic, be grateful, and think of giving to those who have not. Christmas is not canceled.