History will refer to 2020 as the year of the pandemic but this week we celebrate Christmas when we all receive the gift of a welcome rest.
Given Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, I have reflected upon how Jesus himself would have responded to the pandemic given viral outbreaks were commonplace in 1st Century Palestine.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Jesus delivering his signature sermon commonly known as the sermon on the mount.
He describes as “blessed” the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
He calls them “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”.
It was unusual to hear a Rabbi deliver such a bombastic manifesto for marginalised Jews living under Roman occupation and his audience were entranced.
But how did his audience know he really meant it?
Matthew 7 captures the climactic crescendo of Jesus’ signature sermon as he says: “By their fruit you will recognise them” and “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man…”
It is almost as if Jesus is inviting his marginalised audience to test the integrity of his words and find out if he is the real deal.
No sooner had Jesus set foot off the mountain than he is confronted by his first prospect – a leper.
Leprosy was the pandemic when Jesus walked the Earth.
Lepers were excluded, unsightly and unwanted so you can imagine Jesus’ invitation ringing in their ears.
However, Levitical law at the time was a lot like our government guidance.
Read more from Ewan Gurr here
The leper listening to Jesus would have had to socially distance from the audience, self-isolate in quarantine, shield until recovered, wear a mark around his neck like a mask and shout “unclean” as track and trace to anyone who came into close proximity.
In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says: “(Leprosy) is a terrible progressive death in which the sufferer dies by inches.”
In 2009, while volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, I was invited to visit the leper colony founded by Mother Teresa in 1958.
They run a self-sustaining enterprise where they build, make and sell craft goods like the head scarves worn by the nuns.
Like Jesus’ treatment of the leper, they are valued as welcome communal citizens.
Jesus had every reason to socially distance himself but as the Apostle Paul later wrote: “The letter (of the law) kills but the spirit gives life.”
If there is anything we can learn from Christ at Christmas, it is that lockdown is itself a pandemic that ravages people in poverty who most need love.
It is time to open society again, return to treating people with humanity and yes, shield the vulnerable and elderly.
This may not be a popular column but nor was Jesus’ radical message and it led to his death.