The pandemic a year later
Last year I wrote it was the loneliest Holy Week ever, and now it feels like it’s a depressing new normal. And while I think this Holy Week with Circle of Hope will be great, I am tired of being apart. The covid-19 total cases for the weekend in Philadelphia exceeded 1,200! I have a hard time believing that number. I’m, admittedly, very discouraged that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and here we are still getting very high case numbers. I share the grief of our CDC Director, who went off script and even approached crying, at the challenge of the moment. And I totally get it. It’s not normal to live in relative isolation for a year. We aren’t made to live this year, and even with the blessings of technology, that has kept us connected and helped us connect to people with disabilities (who I want to visit in person, mind you!), we know that there is a fuller version of our relationships. I understand wanting to just ignore the restrictions and get on with our lives, and I am stuck between sympathy for the struggle, and the responsibility we have to one another. Pastors with their congregations are making difficult choices. Our pastors in Circle are too. But the struggle is real, between reaching for our full humanity or staying in isolation, for caring for our own emotional selves, or the health of the most vulnerable.
This last year has shown us the worst parts of our humanity, but also the best parts. I don’t want to succumb to cynicism, many of us did a heroic thing in keeping the restrictions and we saved lives. Our church survived, and in many cases thrived, through the pandemic. But too many people died, too many people made dangerous exceptions, and we believed misinformation that drove hysteria and preyed on the vulnerable. So, to me, the space between our justification and our sanctification was made evident during this pandemic, and it is punctuated on this holiest of weeks. Even in ordinary times, we walk with Jesus in death this week, simulating the dark experience as best as we can, culminating in darkness on Good Friday, during our Tenebrae observance. When resurrection comes, we remember that hope has prevailed over despair, life over death, light through the darkness. And yet, despite the joy we find in the morning, we return to the in-between space between Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection. The work is still incomplete. The Kingdom of God is here and it is not yet.
Our present despair, requires actual hope
This is even clearer this year, because as we do all of this remotely, we will still taste the sweetness of the cookie and the crisp air of the morning. But we will return, once again, to our relative isolation. Perhaps the vaccinated among us will have private gatherings, which is a major relief, but it still is calculated, still different, still not through it yet. And that’s true for how we experience resurrection now. It is true we will resurrect again, but that does not mean we are immortal. It does not mean that we won’t suffer, or we won’t die. We will rise again with Christ, but our present suffering is still evident, with or without the pandemic.
But that does not make the resurrection immaterial. In fact, our present dilemma, the present limitations we face, require the resurrection to be material. The resurrection does not work if it’s a metaphor, if it’s a nice story, if it is supposed to make us feel better alone. That wouldn’t be without value, but it wouldn’t be very distinctive, and certainly not losing sleep over not being able to celebrate it in the same way. It would be like missing a crowded movie theater, which is not nothing, but it would lack the existential impact that we need it to have. It would lack the existential impact that I need it to have in this dreaded pandemic, in these worst of times, in this apocalypse I am living in.
The Apostle Paul said as much in his first letter to the Corinthians:
So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, “There’s no resurrection of the dead”? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless.
Paul thinks that the meaning of the whole faith movement he is helping to start lies on the truth of the resurrection. This is the hope we offer the world. That death has truly been defeated. It’s not a truism, it’s not a nicety, it is not just to make us feel better. If it is just an image, yet we claim it to be real, than we are liars and deceivers. When I say “He is Risen!” this week, I will really mean it.
The resurrection of Jesus means that transformation can actually occur. That you can change. That our world can change. And that we will rise with Christ. Without the actuality of the resurrection, our hope for actual peace and justice on earth can be reduced to a spiritual experience within us. If we say that the materiality of the resurrection is not important, than neither is the material consequence of the resurrection. We don’t actually need to fill the poor with good things, we may just tell a story to encourage them as they inevitably succumb to their circumstance. This is what’s at stake if we merely abstract the resurrection into just another story. I’m with Paul, our preaching is useless, and so is our faith.
Doubt, not certainty, leads to faith
If you aren’t there yet, I want to reassure you that Jesus already went there for you, and so you can let that be enough. Let Jesus fill you where your doubts are. And let Jesus manifest his presence in you through your connection to community. Faith is a gift, and some of us have more of it than others. So if you aren’t there yet, you don’t have to get there all on your own. Your leaders and friends can help you along the way.
I’d love to give you an apologetic that explains that the resurrection is true so that you can believe it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I not only think that is a fool’s errand, I think that the value of the resurrection comes from our faith in it, not our certainty in it. If you never doubt the resurrection of Jesus, if you never wonder about it, then you might be failing to live into the fullness of it. Even Peter doubted it when the women reported it to him. Even he wondered what had happened.
So use your doubt, and allow it to create space for faith. If you must be certain that the resurrection really happened, then you may eventually be certain that it didn’t. Openness to our doubt allows us to doubt our doubt, too. The resurrection of Jesus won’t make sense to us, as if it is rationale or obeys the laws of physics. Any Christian who offers that to you may be uncomfortable with their own doubt, or they be trying to rationalize the most absurd thing that has ever occurred. Don’t buy what they are selling.
But if you feel moved, explore your faith and listen to the experience of those with faith, those who need the hope, and find it. The resurrection of Jesus Christ only means something if it really happened. And because it really did happen, I invite you then to enter the fullness of the darkness this week and of this year. Enter into Holy Week knowing that you can feel all of the worst of what we are facing, because true liberation awaits us. The reality of the resurrection permits us to feel the reality of death. We don’t have to avoid it, because hope is on the way, new life is coming.
Blessed Holy Week to you.