As the Pandemic Continues…

With the omicron variant stirring things up in new ways, we face the discouraging prospect of moving back into more restrictions as Year Two of the Coronavirus plods on into what may well be Year Three. Many people who have been quietly compliant, including many Christians, are now murmuring against the constraints and against the powers that be who impose them. Skepticism, even cynicism, beckons—about public health officials formerly accorded respect, about politicians formerly accorded cooperation, even about pharmaeutical companies and medical professionals formerly accorded admiration and gratitude.

What is a person, a citizen, and a Christian to make of what’s happened, what’s happening, and what’s to happen? Here are a few thoughts.

We should expect more ambiguity, ambivalence, and even contradiction from our experts. The science regarding COVID-19 has been complex from the beginning, with some facts taken for granted by everyone, other information seemingly reliable giving way to very different data, and many questions still not satisfactorily answered. That’s how science often works in real time. 

For scientists to “flip-flop” may be a sign of stupidity. But it’s more likely a sign of humble recognition of an earlier understanding giving way to a later one as both information and interpretation improve. (Would we want scientists to stubbornly refuse to change their minds in the light of better evidence and ideas?)

Waiting until there is a firm consensus makes sense—if we can afford to wait. But if there are other considerations, such as public health mandates affecting livelihoods and life together, then the rational choice is to go with the expert consensus, however fallible  and even fractured it might be. The alternative is the madness of everyone deciding for himself or herself. 

We should expect more stumbling from our politicians. First, most politicians didn’t get into the offices they hold because they proved themselves to be astute at handling unprecedented crises. They were elected because they were good at fundraising, influence-peddling, deal-brokering, and speech-making, precisely none of which skills are helpful in handling a pandemic. So guess what? They’re not very good at handling a pandemic.

Second, who would be good at handling a pandemic? Every policy consideration is complicated in the extreme: schooling and day care, businesses large and small, transportation both personal and commercial, healthcare economics, the balance of civil liberties and public health worries, and more.

Third, politics in the real world is always awkward, always stumbling, always under- or over-reacting and never hitting the sweet spot of graceful competence. It is always an unfathomable ocean of crosscurrents, a bewildering matrix of conflicting agenda, mixed motives, contrasting interests, various forms of power, stupidity, and venality. What, seriously, do we expect of politicians and political systems that can barely keep the roads paved, the schools open, the hospitals supplied, and the borders safe at the best of times?

We should beware overreach from the powerful. Crises prompt elites to do more than they should, both because they can and because they often feel they must. The last couple of decades have seen Canadian courts, legislatures, universities, professional colleges, and other powerful institutions acknowledge civil rights, and particularly religious rights, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms only to then set them aside in the name of some putative greater public good. 

Yes, many Christians in Canada, as is true of our American cousins, whine about the loss of Christian prerogatives in our post-Christian societies. But many also rightly warn about an entrenched, growing, and unapologetic secularism that demonstrably discriminates against religious individuals and groups, abrogating conscience rights for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists in bioethical zones while making it steadily harder for Christian schools and charities to fulfill their distinctive missions. Everyone and everything, it seems, must conform to the ethical norms of the consensus of post-Christian Canadian progressives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a Christmas Song?

How about Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” instead?

You might wonder if these are trick questions….

Cohen’s song was made famous by both the movie “Shrek” and the rendition of it by k. d. lang during Vancouver’s Olympic Games (although John Cale and Jeff Buckley are usually credited with the first influential covers). 

Associating it with Christmas, however, was the work of a cappella group “Pentatonix” on their seasonal album released several years ago.

The song seems wildly inappropriate for the Advent season. Cohen reportedly wrote 80-some verses, but none of those I’ve heard or read have anything seriously or sacredly to do with the Nativity.

As singers now try to find new material for the inevitable Christmas album, they may well be grasping at anything that sounds religious. “The first verse has ‘David,’ ‘Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’—excellent! Let’s include it.”

Which brings us to Handel, whose oratorio originally had nothing to do with Christmas, either. 

“Messiah” premiered in Dublin in April (not December) 1742, and the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” concludes the second part of the three-part work, the part that focuses on the passion, not the birth, of Christ.

Many choirs, alas, end their performances with that literal show-stopper. But a truly Biblical perspective requires the third part’s treatment of the things to come. Indeed, the “Hallelujah Chorus” draws its lyrics from the Book of Revelation.

Clearly, however, the Coming of Jesus at Christmas is properly understood only in the context of the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of days. So a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” reminiscent of the angels’ song to the Bethlehem shepherds, nicely suits the season after all.

What, then, about the rather glib appropriation of Cohen’s song (and I say that sadly as a fan of “Pentatonix”)? 

It prompts me to go back to the estimable oeuvre of historian Gerry Bowler (a/k/a Gerald Q. Bowler, Ph.D., King’s College, University of London). In his three volumes on Christmas, the latest of which is Christmas in the Crosshairs, Bowler constantly challenges us to consider just what in our Christmas lore is truly consonant with Christianity and what really isn’t.

The media lit up recently about an American pastor yelling his way into shopping malls to bring the good news that Santa Claus isn’t real. One likes to think that he originally hoped his audience would receive his message with joy, abandon the pagan Gift-bringer, and give their hearts to the Babe of Bethlehem. But after a few rounds of crying children and furious parents, one would think he’d have gone away to reconsider his evangelistic approach.

Bowler helps us see that jolly old St. Nick is, indeed, a complex mixture of European folklore, Christian history (about both St. Nicholas of Myra and the Christ child), American social control (to domesticate Yuletide from lower-class excesses), general sentimentality (think Hallmark TV specials) and global commercialism (as the world’s biggest festival, ripe with pecuniary possibilities).

Just because someone decides to associate something with Christmas, then, doesn’t mean it truly reflects the “reason for the season.”

So before I cue up any version of “Hallelujah” this Christmastime, and before I hang up greenery, or stockings, or tree ornaments, or mistletoe, I will consult Dr. Bowler’s references and try to truly honour Jesus Christ on his birthday.

Because if I don’t decide on the appropriateness of this or that song, decoration, or ritual, other people will be very glad to decide it for me.

And they may not be entirely motivated by the Christmas spirit.

Cur Deus Homo?

Mark 14:22-25 isn’t a typical Advent passage, but it provides a few clues about the coming of the Lord:

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them. ‘Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.'”

Yes, Jesus took on flesh and blood in order to suffer and die for us as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And, yes, he “tented” among us (John 1:14) in order that we might see his light, and learn not only about God, but about how to live in the Light of God.

Yet the last verse cited from GMark reminds us that Jesus intended to drink wine again after his death. He intended to sup with disciples in the (full coming of the) kingdom of God.

In fact, Jesus undertook atonement, and spent his life showing us how to live as children of God, precisely in order to equip us to spend eternity with him in the kingdom of God—and to position himself among us as a fellow human being in order to enjoy that eternity with us as one of us. (In fact, GJohn uses “eternal life” in place of “the kingdom of God,” with “eternal life” also meaning “the life of the age to come.”)

Jesus thus gave us his body and blood not only as sacrifice, as a gift, to be used up, so to speak, in his passion and death. He gave us his body and blood in the eucharist not only as sustenance, as his ongoing life within us. He gave us his body and blood not only as salvation, as our Orthodox friends remind us of theōsis as the divine life flows into us via the connection made by the Son’s incarnation. But Jesus gave us his body and blood in his incarnation, resurrection, ascension, and coming again also as subsistence (theologians will get the pun), as the way for God to live among us, as one of us, forever.

“Atonement” doesn’t mean “at-one-ment.” But atonement is for at-one-ment. God becomes human not only to save humans but to be human—to get as close to us as he possibly could. (And then God even advances on that by giving us the Spirit to indwell us, thus drawing us into the very life of God [per John 13-17].)

How astonishing is this incarnate love! As we take communion during this Advent time, then, may we give thanks for Jesus’ body and blood in all that it means: sacrifice, sustenance, salvation, and subsistence. “Emmanuel,” indeed. Alleluia!