By Fr. Joseph Tetlow, SJ
This liturgical season reminds us of our hope at a time when it can be difficult to find hope in the world.
Advent may be the best time of year to consider what will come out of the pandemic we are suffering through, for this liturgical season reminds us of our hope at a time when it can be difficult to find hope in the world. As the virus seeps everywhere, nothing could make us more hopeful than remembering that our Creator and Lord has come into our flesh.
He has come not as a visitor, like Yahweh came to visit Moses on Mount Sinai; then, the Lord came, and the Lord went. But the Son of God has come to stay. He is equal to the Father and the Spirit as God, but did not think divinity had to be clung to, but emptied Himself and took on the nature of a servant. (Phil. 2:6) Remember? He said, I came not to be served, but to serve. (Matt. 20:28)
He still does: The Incarnation became a permanent condition. In God, a human heart still beats, and a human mind still governs. And among us? Well, St. Paul assured us, all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal. 3:27) Just as we live in the mild breezes and warm sun of spring, we live in Him who promised that He will be with us all days. (Matt. 28:20)
While families are locked up in their houses, and the elderly are left in a room alone, rarely visited, we need to remember: Always, He will be with us.
There is another hope that we need in an Advent threatened by COVID-19. This pandemic is forcibly reminding us that we are not going to be on this Earth as we are now for very long. Death looms over our cities, our nation and over the whole globe. None of us can dodge it, even if we wear our masks all day long. We don’t much like to think of death – we don’t even sit at wakes anymore, and people often bury, not their loved ones, but a heavy little box.
Every day we see the number of deaths from this pandemic in the paper and on television. So, we need to remember our hope. We remember first of all that the Resurrection of the Savior was not a single historical event that happened on one day. It is an ongoing event, marking the second half of human history. The first half was bitterly marred by sin, and sin led to death. The people had learned only the vague hope that the souls of the just are in the hands of God. (Wis. 3:1)
Jesus’ Resurrection marked the beginning of the end of death’s reign. For all who believe in Him and keep His word already live in the Kingdom of God and look forward exultantly to God’s glory. (Jn. 3:16) When we remember that hope, we are taking account of two things.
First, though we have here no lasting city, we have in our life in Christ the hope that we will live – we, ourselves, body and soul – after we have gone through the door of death.
Second, we know that we cannot choose to live forever, any more than we can tell the coronavirus not to bother us. No. Our hope is in the Name of the Lord. Advent connects the beginning in Christ with the end in Christ: For this is how God loved the world; he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (Jn. 1:16) Our end is eternal life.
That brings us to another reason why Advent is the perfect season to reflect on this dreadful coronavirus: Advent trips over November, when the Church celebrates All Saints and All Souls. On these feasts, we celebrate the successful arc of life of those whom God has called. The timing is perfect, because this virus was sent to us as a reminder that the Incarnation and the Resurrection are not the only events that were not just points in time.
The Father assigned an arc of life to Jesus of Nazareth – and to the Lady Mary and to Joseph, His father. The Father still assigns an arc of life to each human being – including me and you. This is part of the mystery of life as our God has given it to us. As Jesus was born and lived and suffered, so does each of us. And we can say with St. Paul that in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Col. 1:24)
We have to be honest: this COVID-19 thing is a pain, a suffering. But perhaps it doesn’t seem so great when we put it in perspective. We will be raised again, in our own flesh, as ourselves, carrying with us forever the Christian character we have developed.
When we die, we take nothing with us to judgment except the character we have nourished. Make a tree good, and its fruit will be good, is the way Jesus put it. (Matt. 12:33) The virtues we have lived – faith and hope, of course, but also kindness, perhaps, patience, courage, compassion – these will be our character that we take to judgment.
So, Advent is the perfect time – and coronavirus the challenging situation – to ask ourselves whether we are a good tree bringing forth good fruit. Or not?
Isaiah said, the Redeemer’s human character would be marked by wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, piety, knowledge and fear of the Lord. From the earliest days, the People have understood that these virtues are powers we have to call on, authority we have to declare and act in holiness; these virtues are given to each of us when we are baptized into Christlife.
St. Paul listed the virtues that those who live in the Spirit will display in our character, if we exercise them: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Advent, then – this particular Advent drenched in deadly virus that we need to protect one another from – can bless our shelter-at-home with the virtues, the greatest of which is love – and love is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. (1 Cor. 13:7)
This is the perfect way to handle COVID-19. And love never comes to an end – but coronavirus will, for all of us, one way or another.
Fr. Joseph Tetlow, SJ, is a world-renowned writer on Ignatian spirituality and spiritual director. He has served as dean of Loyola University New Orleans, assistant to the superior general in Rome for Ignatian Spirituality and associate editor of America. He is also the former director of Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Dallas, Texas.