After months of avoiding physical presence at church services as a covid prevention measure, it was very special to be back in church for Christmas Sunday. Most Malawians are back to regular worship at church so I thought it is about time I joined them. Care is still being taken – for example, the handshaking that was ubiquitous is no more and people now greet one another with friendly waves. But with just over 100 recorded active covid cases and only two deaths in the past month, Malawi can be justified in restoring normal life while remaining alert and cautious.
So I was able to hear this morning the time-honoured words from the Gospel of Matthew: “See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel, which is translated “God with us’.” It has always been a statement made against the odds and perhaps never more than this year.
Hearing the biblical promise in Malawi gives it a certain resonance. For much of life is lived against the odds, yet people discover the confidence that “God is with us.” As the foundations of life have been shaken this year by the devastating spread of the coronavirus around the world, Malawians have been as shaken and troubled as anyone else. Yet, time and again, they have expressed this simple yet transformative confidence: Immanuel – God is with us. At a time when we have all been reminded of our vulnerability, Malawians have much to teach us about what faith means.
Meanwhile I thought the congregation were entitled to ask what I had been up to during my long spell of pandemic-induced absence. It is time for Christmas presents so the best I could do was to give the congregation a pre-publication copy of the Malawi Church History which is the fruit of the quiet days when covid shut everything down. I hope they can be inspired to know more of their own story, with Immanuel at the heart of it.