Celebrating a Covid Christmas
By DARRYL TIPPENS
“Life has never been normal.”—C. S. Lewis
In the midst of the pandemic with its endless disruptions and tragic loss of life, it’s tempting to shout, “This is unprecedented—the worst ever! Nothing like this has ever happened before!” It’s easy to think such thoughts, but they are not true to the facts. It’s been this bad before and even worse. One of the benefits of hanging out with older, wiser people is that they can fill in our memory gaps, improve our perspective, and render some comfort. C. S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, has done just this for me.
Lewis helps me because he’s been where we are now are—and then some. He lived long enough to survive the Spanish Flu, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and more. During the darkest days of World War II, when Hitler’s armies were sweeping over Europe and blasting away at England, Lewis’s university students wondered why bother with studies. Lewis answered them in a compelling sermon called “Learning in War-Time.” His advice then can help us now.
The Oxford professor insisted it is important to carry on—to keep up one’s work and to live life to the fullest possible. It is neither frivolous nor selfish to do ordinary human things—to pursue learning, to enjoy beauty, to celebrate—during difficult times. He would certainly advise us in our crisis to celebrate the greatest of all gifts, the coming of the Christ Child into our midst.
So how are we to live in the age of Covid-19 plague? Lewis answers, why, with courage and hope, as people have done for millennia:
“Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents. In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.”
Crises do something useful, Lewis argues. They clarify the most obvious truth: we are frail beings. In “ordinary” times (a doubtful category) human beings easily fool themselves. They live as though everything is forever; but when a big threat like a war or a pandemic hits, we wake up. Our mortality dawns on us: “100 percent of us will die; the odds can’t be increased,” Lewis says. I have slightly edited this passage from Lewis, replacing the word “war” with the words “coronavirus” or “pandemic.”
“I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The coronavirus creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare our pandemic with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.”
“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…. Life has never been normal.” Lewis isn’t just administering a dose of “stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on” British stoicism. He’s quietly telling us how it’s always been.
Life was not normal when Jesus was born in that Bethlehem stable. Life was not normal when Lewis’s mother died when he was ten, or when his best friends perished in the Great War, when the bombs fell on London, or when his wife Joy died of cancer. Even so, Lewis urges us not to despair, but to do all that we do with faith, hope, love, courage, and gusto—“as to the Lord.”
In his later years, when the English were in the grip of the latest terror, the prospect of atomic annihilation, he wrote:
“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that), but they need not dominate our minds.”
In her Christmas poem “First Coming,” Madeleine L’Engle wrote:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
In the spirit of Lewis, L’Engle invites us not to wait “for the perfect time” to celebrate his coming into our world. The pandemic will end, but we must not withhold our Christmas observances till then. Observing holidays and holy days, as best we can, is right and proper—and healing. This Covid-19 Christmas, as much as ever, we should rejoice in the coming of the Christ Child, who is the Incarnation of Hope. In L’Engle’s words:
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University.