“OK, a little poke…” I avert my eyes to look out the large picture window of the 6th floor Clinical Research Unit. Over the rooftop of the UW-Madison Hospital, and a mile to the east, I see the lighted windows of my research lab. Two miles further, looming on the horizon, is the dome of the Wisconsin state capitol. In between lie streets with shops still boarded from the racial injustice protests of early summer. Medicine… science…politics… race: the dominant forces of a cataclysmic 2020 now framed together, forever, in my memory.
I am participant number 0174 in a Phase III clinical trial for the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine (AZD1222). Conducted locally by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, this is one of over 100 study sites worldwide, targeting 40,000 participants. Two-thirds of participants will receive the vaccine, while one-third will be given the placebo. I, like every other participant, hope I am getting the vaccine.
More importantly, though, I recognize that this experience is gifting me with something altogether lacking in 2020. It is gifting me with anticipatory hope. In other words, it is giving new meaning to this Advent season.
“Advent” derives from the Latin word “adventus,” meaning coming, or arrival. In the Christian tradition, this arrival is associated with a long, extended wait; with hope punctuated by doubt; with lament for the state of this world; and with keen anticipation for a better one.
Our world now waits in breathless anticipation for the rollout of several vaccines that promise, within this Advent season, to begin turning the tide against a global pandemic that has shuttered economies, divided nations, and caused, as of this writing, over 1.5 million human deaths. The development of these vaccines is a scientific success story unparalleled in the history of modern medicine. It is a testament to the extraordinary power of science to elucidate—and manipulate—the fundamental biological, chemical and physical mechanisms that govern our world. I shake my head in wonder: how can it be that a string of messenger RNA, fabricated to carry the genetic code of the SARS-COV-2 spike protein, can be injected into a person, and that person’s body responds by translating the code, identifying the product as dangerous, and developing long-term immunity to the virus that bears in its very name “spike protein”?
The distribution of efficacious vaccines promises what a COVID-weary world has been awaiting for months: a return to normal. Personally, I can hardly wait for unencumbered visits with friends, travel to family, classroom teaching, corporate worship, community activities, and the absence of nagging worry over loved ones with compromised immune systems. Development of worldwide, vaccine-mediated, herd immunity will reap extraordinary benefits for all people. Celebration, indeed!
To be honest, though, my hope and prayer is that we not return to “normal.” Normal is what produced the cascade of catastrophes for which “2020” has become synonymous. Normal is what set the stage for a global pandemic. Normal is what gave us an eruption of racial conflicts, gaping wealth inequalities, record-breaking natural disasters, unprecedented extinction of species, careening conspiracy theories, and hyper-polarized, tribal politics. Normal is what is, quite literally, setting the world on fire.
Which brings me back to Advent, and the hope for a better world. Advent is a time of looking back, looking forward, and looking in. It is a time of reflection, re-connection, and preparation.
We look back to lament the losses, the injustices, the sufferings that have come oh-so-close to overwhelming us, others, and the world we share. And we look back to contemplate the wonder of Immanuel—of the God of the universe entering this world as a baby, with a mission that would shatter shallow perceptions of the Kingdom of God, both then and now.
We look forward to the promise of Christ’s return, when “He will wipe every tear from (our) eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). We look forward to the full renewal of Creation, to a reified shalom. And we take hope in that sure promise.
We look inward to assess the state of our own hearts, and to re-calibrate our ever-faltering hope. We gain strength from a hope that is at once both realistic and courageous. And, as members of Christ’s body charged with carrying out his mission, we re-commit ourselves to personal and corporate acts of love, justice, and healing. We take intentional steps to turn the tides of evil.
It’s not complicated. We wear a mask. We subjugate personal desires to the benefit of others. We give sacrificially so that those less privileged may taste life more fully. Maybe, we even participate in a COVID-19 vaccine trial. We do so in full recognition that our individual steps will have no measurable impact on the global threats confronting us. But that is not the point.
We do so, because they are steps of obedience to God, who has entrusted us to care for the Earth and all its inhabitants.
We do so, because individual steps can be amplified within the community networks in which we live and love, work and worship.
We do so, because we understand what it means to live in that liminal space between what is, and what is to be.
We do so, because we are committed to God’s worldwide restoration project.
We do so, because these are not steps of delusion, but defiant acts of hope.
We do so, because Advent is our season.