As we tiptoe tentatively through the first weeks of 2022, wondering what lies ahead for us this year, I’ve been musing on an attitude which I’ve seen cropping up in a few different places recently – most obviously in the title of the rather universally panned Netflix mockumentary ‘Death to 2021’. (This was itself a follow-up to the apparently equally vapid ‘Death to 2020’; I must admit that I’ve not seen either, for reasons that will probably become apparent below!). It’s a refrain that echoed across various social media posts, op-eds and conversations as we headed towards the end of December: a none-too-fond goodbye to 2021, followed by a fervent suggestion: let’s all pretend that the last two years never happened, shall we?
I’ve found this comment faintly disturbing every time I’ve heard it, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I can certainly understand the desire to move on from the anguish of the past year, with its avalanche of illness, death and restriction, and its wave upon wave of new uncertainties as a feared virus continued to mutate unpredictably. I can also identify with the sense among many that this combination of trauma, uncertainty and restriction has distorted our communal sense of time in unprecedented ways: I’ve lost count of the number of times in December that I thought back to ‘last Christmas’ and found I was thinking of 2019, not 2020. The underlying feeling that 2020 and 2021 exist in a kind of temporal backwater within my memory, a sort of eddying sidestream quite separate from the usual flow of history, makes the prospect of a kind of global collective amnesia seem almost achievable. The sad reality is that the consequences of the pandemic – physical, mental and spiritual – will doubtless rumble on for years to come; in that context it’s understandable that we might wish we could simply delete the past, or reroute it past this time of pain.
So why do I find myself resisting this line of thought? I suppose there is the argument that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, in the words of George Santayana; certainly it’s crucial that we learn the lessons of this pandemic, and this is a challenge that we in the academy need to take seriously. But my own discomfort isn’t so much about the importance of remembering as it as about the character and promises of God. It’s a question of hope. There is a personal element to this for me which predates the pandemic. For the past five years, in response to a family health crisis that has seemed to drag on endlessly and which has often left me wishing I could turn the clock back or else run it somehow forward, I have been returning again and again to a promise God made to the Israelites through the prophet Joel: ‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten […] you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed’ (Joel 2:25).
It’s dangerous to lift Old Testament prophecy casually into a contemporary context, I know. And yet it has been a lifeline to me to see in these verses a God who doesn’t erase but redeems the years of horror, a God to brings His marvellous plans into reality not in spite of but somehow, miraculously, through the periods where they seem impossible. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this passage comes immediately before God’s great promise to ‘pour out my Spirit on all people’, fulfilled at Pentecost: God’s greatest plans for humanity arise out of the scorched earth, out of the valley of dry bones.
My prayer for 2022, then, is this: not that we’d erase the memory of 2021 (or 2020!), nor that we’d fall back on cheap platitudes about focussing on the positives or letting bygones be bygones. Rather, I pray that we will be able to take the trauma we’ve experienced before God our Father, and hold on to His promise that no time is wasted in His Kingdom; that through the anguish of the past two years He will inexorably work His purposes out.
May God bless you in the year ahead.