Arise, shine, for your light has come.
“In the fall of 2019,” writes science journalist Ed Yong, “exactly zero scientists were studying COVID-19, because no one knew the disease existed.” Yet by March of 2020, thousands of scientists around the world dropped what they were doing to study this new disease. “Never have so many researchers trained their minds on a single problem in so brief a time. Science will never be the same.”1
We’re seeing the first fruits of their extraordinary effort now. The promise of light at the end of this long tunnel is something to hold onto in the coming months. The light is real, but darkness is still with us.
And it has always been so.
Light exists not to eliminate darkness, but to help us find our way through it. In the Christian calendar, we’re on the threshold of Epiphany, a season in which we remember the moments of revelation that guide us in life. Think of the wise men following a star on their journey to find the Christ child. Light shining in darkness enables us to take our next faithful step.
Never have I heard so many people, myself included, look forward to the end of a year. Yet even as we celebrate its passing we know that 2020’s impact will linger. It’s like a tornado passing through our town, suggests religious leader Cary Nieuwhof. Once it’s gone, there will be a lot to clean up and repair.2 Surely more than science will never be the same.
We can’t fully absorb collective trauma and grief while we’re going through it. The rising death toll alone is numbing. “It’s as if ten airplanes are falling from the sky every day,” a colleague said. Add to that the devastating economic impact for so many, the disrupted education for rising generations, and millions relying on food pantries to feed their families, and the scale of suffering is overwhelming. We just want it to be over.
Yet now is not the time to look away from what the pandemic has revealed. The great sin would be not to seek the hard-won wisdom born of pain. “I will not go until you bless me,” the biblical patriarch Jacob famously said to the angel who wrestled with him all night long. Never dare we say that the suffering was worth the wisdom gained, but, like Jacob, we can’t afford to let go too soon. For we need wisdom and clarity to focus on what matters most. 2021 is a pivotal year.
For Christians, hope is more than a response to positive signs on the horizon. It is a spiritual practice. “For Christians,” the UN peace negotiator Hiskias Assifa once said, “hopelessness is not an option.” Neither is wishful thinking, but the unwavering determination to seek the good wherever possible. We are called to hope.
As the new year beckons, I find hope in the countless men and women whose acts of love are holding up the world. I find hope in those who never seem too busy to offer help. I find hope in the brilliance of the human mind that can solve complex problems. I find hope in the resilience of the human spirit that rises, time and again, from the ashes of grief.
My prayer for 2021 is that we continue to look for the light, and then to take steps from wherever we stand to address the most important things. As I pray for our political leaders, I can’t stop thinking of something a marriage therapist once told me. He said that when couples first face the chasm between them, it feels hopeless. But as they each take steps from their side to address it, not only does their perception of one another change, but so does their experience of the chasm between them. It’s still there, but their ability to navigate it improves. May it be so for our leaders, and all of us.
Before making your New Year’s resolutions, you might write down all that gives you hope. If your list, like mine, is filled with people, that’s a hopeful sign in itself. What if it were said of us in 2021 that never had so many resolved to work together and create a better world from the pain we endured?
1 “The COVID-19 Manhattan Project,” by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, January/February 2021, p.48
2 Carey Nieuwhof, 5 Reasons You Should Lower Your Expectations in 2021, November 19, 2020