Christmas promises to be more than memorable this year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Worshipers will find their celebrations of Jesus’ incarnation quarantined, their travel and family gatherings curtailed. Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve will likely resound with comparative quiet, as will countless churches where “silent night” will have more to do with global angst than heavenly peace. Carols and sermons will occur online, alongside all the Christmas shopping.
The hopes and fears of 2020 are met in Jesus this Christmas. God in the flesh was born to us with every limit the Incarnation imposes. Could Jesus have contracted a virus? As he was fully human, we presume so. But as he was fully God, we likewise presume any virus only would have had power over Jesus if granted from above (John 19:11). Moreover, we presume Jesus could have repelled a virus as he cast aside Satan, though he characteristically eschewed using divine power for personal benefit (Matt. 26:53; Mark 15:30; Luke 4:23).
Among us mere humans, COVID-19 continues its spread like fire in a parched forest, without discrimination. It burns alongside hot civil unrest and intensely divided public discourse and politics worldwide. Pandemics show no partiality. Discrimination does happen among the cinders, however. The global poor, those without access to good health care, the elderly and already sick, minorities and the marginalized, essential workers, and those needing riskier work to make ends meet sink under the ashes. This may not be our last coronavirus Christmas. A vaccine holds promise, but it won’t immediately eradicate the viral threat, especially if there’s not universal availability or compliance, or if the virus mutates into a deadlier strain.
Whatever beauty ultimately arises from the ashes will be the work of the Spirit (Isa. 61:3). Disparities exacerbated by the pandemic between privileged and poor are those Jesus was born to confront (v. 1). As Mary sang of God at her son’s conception: “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51–53).
Still, in the spirit of incarnational humility, Jesus insisted we each must take up our own cross to follow him. Loss is the sure way to real life. But human pride—a viral vice—fiercely pushes back against crosses by asserting autonomy and control. Pride refuses to concede to mere humanity with its limitation and brokenness, toiling instead to construct a fake front of godlike sovereignty—independent, detached, and fully in charge. Psychologist Richard Beck labels this “the dark and pathological side” of American success. We labor for material and emotional self-sufficiency so as to eliminate every trace of vulnerability. We strive to be like a God who does not actually exist.
The real God born to us at Christmas—whom we worship—took on a real human body, one subject to aging and genetic error, sagging flesh and diminished sight, clogged arteries, declining memory, and death. And the Incarnation occurred amid disparate poverty and scandal, oppression and uncertainty. Jesus cried as a baby and navigated adolescence. He lived a righteous life and died an unjust death for us, wearing a crown of thorns—which recent preachers note resembled the coronavirus (corona comes from the Latin, meaning crown).
Christmas humanity in all its indignity anticipates the resurrection of the body, but even resurrected Jesus still bears his scars (John 20:27). Christians believe in Jesus as fully God and fully human, and nowhere is full humanity more manifest than in dying. The forces of decrepitude and decay, always at work in us, constantly bear witness to our neediness.
As we confine ourselves this Christmas, let us do so with a renewed awareness of the incarnational limits we celebrate in Jesus, who did not consider equality with God as something to exploit (Phil. 2:6). Let this awareness fuel our prayerful, active concern for fellow Christians and others worldwide threatened and thwarted by this pandemic. Every Christmas season decries its own commercialization and seeks to re-ground itself in true meaning. If losing our lives and our comfortable lifestyles opens us up to the true humanity we share with the least and the last and the lost around the world, and thereby meaningfully reconnects us to each other, then I say Merry Christmas.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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