The idea that Advent is apocalyptic may come as a shock to some – it did to me when I came across it (very belatedly two years ago, aged 29!). My Catholic childhood had been filled with Christingles, candles, and carols: things that signified watching and waiting, but are infused with joyful anticipation. It seemed the very antidote to an apocalypse: surely peaceful, prayerful preparation is what Advent is all about? Yet as I delved deeper, the connections between apocalypse and Advent became clear. Here I reflect on how one finds that the whole Bible is apocalyptic (considering apocalypse means “revelation”), thus setting a comforting precedent for the present pandemic.
In the Old Testament, there were conventional apocalypses: whole cities being wiped out; worldwide flooding; plagues in Egypt; bloody battles, and doom-laden prophecies. We are presented with a world in complete disarray and chaos, following the Fall. The New Testament, by contrast, provides far more subtle, more mind-boggling revelations: those of the Incarnation/virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are perhaps less outwardly dramatic, yet they are nonetheless earth-shattering in their significance. God revealed Himself through His son, Jesus Christ, and became one of us; thus, the New Testament is also apocalyptic.
How might these two types of apocalypse relate to the pandemic? One could be forgiven for thinking that these are the end times spoken of in the last Bible chapter, Revelation. I need not list the COVID-19 stats here – we all know them, and it would depress us further. It can feel like we are in a whirlwind of pain, torment, loss, not knowing what might happen next. We do not know how long this pandemic will last – we may feel the ramifications for years to come. It can be hard to find and have hope amidst this. In that respect, we may feel cursed, forsaken, even forgotten by God – just how many in the Old Testament stories would have felt.
To trot out an overworn phrase from the COVID-19 situation, we are living in ‘unprecedented times’: these are dark days, full of loss, death, and despair. This Advent, we are watching more anxiously than usual, as we wait for vaccines to be rolled out - in this way, we are living out parts of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph had little idea what was awaiting them when they travelled to Bethlehem. When they escaped to Egypt, they would have had no idea how long their exile would last; yet their faith in God, and their love for their Son and each other kept them going. So too, we must have faith and continue to show love to one another, as we contemplate an Advent like no other. Remember that without the painful need for the Incarnation, there would have been no Easter – and without Easter, the world could not have been saved.
I do not mean to undermine anyone’s suffering, through what I am about to say next – but I believe that good that can come from our current plight, too It is understandable to be struggling, particularly as Advent begins. Lent and Easter were majorly disrupted by the pandemic, and now so is our other major celebration. This is not to say we cannot use this time to muse about the state of the world, pre-pandemic. There were – and still are – so many societal evils that plague humanity, pre-pandemic: homelessness; famine; war; abuse; poverty, to name just a few. Through the pandemic, we have seen homelessness in the UK temporarily eradicated as people were housed in hotels to protect them temporarily, and a renewed focus on community and common good.
The Gospel according to John begins with a promise that there is “a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower” (John 1:5). Where there is light, there is hope - and where there is hope, we can have faith that God and His agape are there.
Written by Shanika Ranasinghe. Shanika is a Roman Catholic Music PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is a member of SCM.