We are living in very difficult times. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to draw an invisible line through the life of every person on the planet, dividing the past and the future, the good old days and the “new normal” (which is anything but, of course), the fast-receding times when we had felt generally secure and optimistic and an ever-lengthening season of great shaking and uncertainty. As we receive daily news, rarely do we encounter an uplifting or encouraging message, even now after 22 months of pandemic and over a year of far lower hospitalization and death rates. Instead media headlines and public pronouncements remain rife with negativity, screaming with pessimistic projections for the days to come, almost exulting in their orgy of woe and fear.
While it’s undeniable that difficulties remain, we must remind ourselves that we have entered a beautiful season, the season that like no other time of the year breathes with faith and hope. For many of us, Christmas is associated with new beginnings and reminds us of the eternal, timeless values. In the words of Apostle Paul who spoke the mind of the one after whom the holiday is named, “Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.” (NLT 1 Cor 13:13)
If we accept this saying as accurate, we can see how the meaning of our lives is essentially enclosed in it. Faith, hope and love are both the reason for us to continue persevering though obstacles and the means to such perseverance. That holds true despite the increasing secularism of Western society and the unceasing drive for material advancement. It is in the face of this continual societal transformation that the deep need for spiritual sustenance becomes especially evident.
The above verse also suggests that by virtue of lasting forever – that is, being timeless and constant – faith, hope and love do not spring from places of instability and turmoil, nor can they ultimately be sourced from a material world where everything is transient. So often we find ourselves wishing to go back to normal as we place our faith and hope in some positive external change taking place – the pandemic winding down, for example. But as much as this desire is natural, the perpetual crisis inevitably causes feelings of disappointment, powerlessness and even anguish as we realize that our hopes are not being fulfilled in the present time.
Does it mean we should stop hoping? Surely not. There is a difference, however, between the contingent hope sourced from the physical realm and the hope that exists independently from it, the eternal hope. Such hope does not hinge on global events for its source is not in the world. Along with eternal faith and eternal love, eternal hope embodies the core need of every person, providing strength and grounding in the unstable, ever-changing world. Focusing on these helps us see beyond the day’s events and acquire a broader perspective – even an eternal one.
Christmas brings our attention to such perspective. In what appears to be a simple story of a child who came into the world in a humble way is enclosed a hope-filled message of the divine, faithful, self-sacrificial love that conquered death. Perhaps then it is not a coincidence that for many of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, if any at all, Christmas season remains the most love-filled time of the year.
The message of Christmas carries an even greater significance when we ponder the meaning of death. From a spiritual standpoint, death is not only termination of physical existence but can also be viewed as a state of separation from eternal life and from its three elements, faith, hope and love. And when the experiential understanding of these three elements is lacking, fear arises as an inevitable response to the world’s volatility. Fear becomes symptomatic of separation from the eternal realm in the presence of external stresses.
In some respects, the Covid-19 pandemic is not merely a physical health emergency, it is the crisis of fear. The pandemic has caused us to lock our attention on the worldwide crisis (or our own little corner of it) and, having isolated us from the eternal perspective, has made us feel disconnected from its truths – as well as from each other. The pandemic seems to have uprooted Western society’s millennia-old grounding in transcendent values (or perhaps exposed their earlier desiccation) and made us succumb to fear, fear-driven decisions and fear-induced paralysis of thought and action.
That fear damages our health and wellbeing beyond physical and environmental factors is widely acknowledged among psychologists and healthcare professionals. Yet the ways of overcoming fear are not sufficiently researched nor talked about. Science and technology have not been able to offer a bulletproof way out of fear, in the form of either a pill or a device, most likely because it’s not within the scope of these fields. (Even antidepressants made to balance concentrations of serotonin and other neurotransmitters only deal with brain functioning and are unable to alter a person’s spiritual state.) Many of us would agree that science, no matter how advanced or refined, with its primary emphasis on the physical world does not answer existential or spiritual questions.
The effects of fear are more than physical, however. Fear exacerbates medical conditions, both bodily and psychological. Fear causes us to make poor decisions and take wrong paths. (The pandemic and associated government policies have demonstrated that.) Fear as it stems from and is perpetuated by concerns driven by the world around us keeps our attention locked on these things, preventing us from seeing and seeking beyond them. While it is a natural universal emotion and is often useful, even life-preserving, fear taking over as people’s default response is crippling, reducing humans to reflexive beings, little more than animals. Fear is the opposite to faith, hope and love, and is most easily triggered when the latter are absent or deficient in some way.
Still, just as the solution to a problem is not found within the problem itself but requires a look from outside, the remedy to fear cannot be found where it is activated – the feeble and unpredictable world. To overcome fear we must embark on a wider search, opening our minds and hearts to another realm, the one defined by the eternal truths. “Love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.” You can look that one up.
That is one of the main messages of Christmas, the holiday which throughout centuries is celebrated annually by multitudes of nations. For believers, Jesus Christ is the ambassador of eternal life and the greatest spiritual teacher who opened up experiential understandings of faith, hope and love. He is the Alpha and the Omega, and His birth is the manifestation of God’s promise to bring eternity and redemption to humanity.
But even those many who do not embrace Jesus as the Saviour – the clear majority in our country – would most likely appreciate a relational aspect of his teaching, namely his focus on the needs of others and his mission driven by selfless love and profound compassion. So even for non-believers, Christmas is the season of generous gift exchange and festive times together, when the needs of others exceed our own and we grow in a shared appreciation of heartfelt kindness and love. Hence, Christmas is an innately spiritual season.
At times when the very foundations of life appear to be cracking we find ourselves in need of unwavering ground. As we search for stability and security, the holiday season serves to remind us that our life encompasses so much more than merely solving problems in the world around us. Instead we live to seek and find those three eternal anchors that transcend reality and surpass objective knowledge. Faith, hope and love can become what effectively define and shape all our pursuits and provide strength at times of struggle. Just as a tree growing in an open field develops an elaborate root system to withstand strong winds and heavy rains, so can we approach the challenge of living through bewildering and arduous times. We feel faith, hope and love inside ourselves, and perhaps begin to ponder the source. As we experience the days of Christmas celebration, it is an opportunity open to us all.
Maria (Masha) V. Krylova is C2C Journal’s Art Director; she has an extensive background in science and continues to be involved in research while seeking spiritual understanding.