This is the first reflection in a devotional series I’ve made for Advent 2020 called No Going Back. You can read more about this devotional and download a PDF copy here.
When I was in high school, I watched a lot of “docuseries” about natural disasters and world-ending catastrophes. These shows catalogued the many scenarios in which life on earth could be completely annihilated: from the probable, such as an asteroid collision, to the outlandish – such as robots becoming self-aware and deciding to kill us all. This was a few years before 2012, too. Doomsday prophets and New Age thought leaders predicted that, based on their interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar, the world would end on December 21, 2012. Of course, that day came and went, the Earth was not sucked into a black hole, and furthermore, indigenous Mayans and scholars affirmed that the whole idea was ridiculous and just a ploy for white people to sell books.
2020 feels different though, doesn’t it? There were no doomsday prophecies made about this year, yet it feels immensely apocalyptic. The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended our society. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and a collective failure to take mitigation efforts seriously has only made things worse. Millions have lost their jobs. The risk of infection has robbed families and friends of the opportunity to properly mourn the loved ones who succumbed to COVID-19. We also saw collective uprisings across the United States and around the world over the murders of Black people at the hands of police and how these protests were met with more police violence and repression. Wildfires raged across the western United States and Australia, bringing death and destruction. This year’s hurricane season, worsened by climate change, brought storm after storm, devastating Central America and the American South. Oh, and let’s not forget about the literal murder hornets – remember those?
It’s hard not to see the events of this year and not think that we are in the “End Times”. In the scripture for this week, Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the signs that the Son of Man is coming and prepare for his return. It’s a message Jesus repeats in many places in the Gospels, either explicitly or in parable: “Keep awake.” Be present. Stay focused, or you might miss it. In his book on climate change entitled We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose that which was previously hidden.” When you think “apocalypse”, you think of a world-ending catastrophe – but the ancient Greek root of the word means to “uncover” or “reveal”. The chaos of 2020 has taken much from us – but it has also exposed the ways in which the systems upon which our world is built are actively oppressing and killing us all, with the most marginalized taking the brunt. The pandemic has shown Americans how deeply neglected our healthcare system is and how many Americans simply cannot afford to get sick and miss work. Coronavirus showed us too, how our capitalist economy allows some to work from home but forces predominantly Black and Brown people to work essential jobs and potentially get sick, or risk losing wages. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor showed us that white supremacy continues to thrive in all of our institutions, particularly among police forces. The wildfires and hurricanes of this year reminded us that climate change will only make these natural disasters even worse – and we are running out of time to adequately address it. Crisis lays bare the things we may not have seen before, or more likely, chose to ignore.
Jesus reminds us to be alert and pay attention to what is going on around us. I invite you to notice what’s happening internally as well. Are you stressed? Sad? Anxious? Are you eating enough? How’s your sleep been? For me, I know that for much of this year I’ve been operating on auto-pilot – trying to stay afloat with all the chaos, trying to keep myself occupied so I don’t think too much – that whenever someone would ask how I was doing, I’d simply say, “Oh, you know…just tired.” It wasn’t until recently, as I began really addressing my mental health needs in a deeper way that I could go deeper with my feelings. I am happy that I have time to contemplate and can still connect with friends despite being socially distanced. I’m mourning the many people who’ve died from coronavirus. I’m missing the many things I used to do without worrying about potentially getting sick. I am stressed about finances, but feeling assured that God will take care of me. I am grateful to have a home and enough to eat. I am tired. Know that all of what you’re feeling is valid, and deserves to be acknowledged.
Is our world ending? Well, yes, the world as we knew it before the pandemic is gone, as much as we would love to “go back to normal”. But also because we are seeing the death throes of unsustainable, violent systems and ways of life. Our old habits and routines have dramatically changed as well. If we are paying attention, if we stay alert, we can actually take action to ensure that the world we rebuild – and the lives we create for ourselves – are more life-giving and more just than the ones we had before.
A question for you:
What has this year revealed for you?
A prayer for this first week of Advent:
God of truth, awaken our senses to the truths you want us to see.
Help us to stay present and alert, that we may watch for the coming of your Son in our midst,
just as the shepherds watched and followed the star in the skies above Bethlehem.