The world this Christmas is looking to be pretty much the same as it did last Christmas.
At this writing, the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported across the globe is over 225 million, and over 5.1 million have succumbed to the disease. Even with the drive in most countries to inoculate their population from the virus, the number of new cases remains high, averaging around 4 million globally each week.
In Singapore, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb despite the fact that more than 80 percent of its population has been vaccinated, and even as the government plans to treat the disease as endemic.
The pandemic, however, is not the only menace that is plaguing our world. 2021 has seen some of the wackiest weather conditions in recent history with hurricanes, floods, forest fires, and extreme temperatures reported in different parts of the world. In June, the World Meteorological Organisation reported that: “2021 is a make-or-break year for climate action, with the window to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”1
Both Christmas and COVID confront us with some inconvenient truths about the world in which we live. The world as it is, is not the world that its Creator intended it to be.
In other words, Christmas and COVID make it undeniably clear that ours is a fallen reality that is severely marred because of human rebellion and sin. Our earth, writes Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is “accursed ground”. Because of sin, it is “cast out of the glory of its created state, out of the unambiguous immediacy of its speech and praise of the Creator into the ambiguity of utter strangeness and enigma”.2
Under the divine curse, this fallen world is riddled with ambiguities and contradictions: life and death, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, health and disease, community and alienation, peace and war.
Such is life outside Eden! Christmas and COVID therefore testify in grave and unequivocal terms that this world of ours is in need of redemption.
But Christmas tells us something else which COVID on its own doesn’t.
Christmas tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) to save fallen and sinful humanity and to renovate and restore the creation now in ruins. Christmas therefore points us to the future of God’s creation, to the promised new heaven and new earth (Rev 21).
This means that Christmas makes possible something that COVID can’t.
Christmas makes faith in the sovereign God world possible. And Christmas has also made it possible for the people who have learned to trust in God to put their hope in Him for a better future. This is not the future of our own making, but one that only the God who brought this world into being can bring about.
Christmas is therefore always both a reminder and a promise. Every time we celebrate Christmas, we are reminded that the eternal Son of God has come in human flesh, died on the cross and risen from the dead for the salvation of the world.
Christmas also reminds us that the sovereign God who creates and saves has not abandoned the world. For His name is Emmanuel, the God who is with us (Matt 1:23). He is present in human history, and He is mysteriously directing it to fulfil His unfathomable plan.
But Christmas is also a promise. Every time we celebrate Christmas, we do not only look back to Bethlehem and Calvary, but also to the New Jerusalem. Christmas redirects or gaze towards that great and wonderful Day when Christ will transform this sin-marred world plagued with wars and strife, pain and sorrow, cancer and coronaviruses into something unimaginably beautiful.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth”, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away […]. Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev 21:1, 3–4)
1 World Meteorological Organisation, “Warming stripes show that climate change is here and now”, WMO, Int. 21 June 2021, https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/warming-stripes-show-climate-change-here-and-now.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 134.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).