Brief thoughts on COVID-19, Lent, Holy Week, suffering and more

Introduction

This has been an unpredictably strange Lent and now Holy Week for us Christians. As a faith that places high value in our collective identity—i.e. the communion of saints—we have been either legislated against gathering or strongly discouraged to gather together to worship during much of Lent and now Holy Week. Staying home, social distancing, quarantine and self-isolating have become the universally acceptable protocols.

Without question, the coronavirus—COVID-19—has changed the world for the worse; as well as in some respects for the better. It is a tragedy that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of so many people; and will continue to do so into at least the near future. My heart goes out to those who are suffering with the coronavirus; as well as those families who have lost loved ones.

In times of suffering, the worst in human beings comes out. The New Testament Passion narratives in all four Gospels bear this truth out. Humankind was, and still is way too capable of betrayals, denials, exploiting the weak and most vulnerable, wrongfully scapegoating and unjustly arresting, torturing and killing the innocent.

The media doesn’t always help in this regard. Sometimes they do not have the complete facts; distort and misunderstand and manipulate the facts to create fear among the general public; which can escalate into mass hysteria. For example, it is mass hysteria at work when people buy and horde as much toilet paper and hand sanitizer as possible—creating a shortage for others. Moreover, it is also a coldness of heart and intentional greed on the part of some to sell their surplus of these items for outrageously high prices.

Another example of people at their worst is expressed in antisemitism online—encouraging people with the coronavirus to deliberately go into Jewish synagogues and other places where Jews gather to spread COVID-19. Such actions, once again, confirm that sin and evil are alive among human beings in the world.

Suffering can be redemptive

On the other hand, suffering can be redemptive in that it has the potential to bring out the best in humankind. For instance, there are people like health-care workers, first responders, those in essential services like grocery store workers, truckers, etc., who willingly risk their lives for the common good of everyone. May God continue to bless them in their work!

During Lent and Holy Week, followers of Jesus are hopefully acutely aware of and appreciative for how suffering is redemptive by focussing on the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospels. The suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday was not the last word. By raising Jesus from the dead on that first Easter Sunday; God has assured us that suffering can be redemptive.

As we experience sufferings from COVID-19 I do not think that we should blame God for it. Rather, I believe that God is in solidarity with us and suffers with us and is even giving us the opportunity to turn to him for help and come to see that he is the Giver of life. By turning to God for help maybe we can learn some important lessons from our sufferings.

Sabbath

I am, in part, seeing this time as a Sabbath in that it affords us to stop; slow our life down; and reflect more deeply about the meaning of life and what is most important in life—i.e. God, faith, relationships, community, loving and serving our neighbours, especially those most needy.

By cultivating our relationships with God, spouse, children and others and slowing down and resting from work can improve our spiritual, mental and physical health. By not being so busy; by slowing down; God’s creation also benefits from Sabbath time. For example, it is being observed that in many of the world’s largest cities there is less air pollution.

Exile and Lament

I also think that this is a time of Exile and Lament. Someone has described this time of exile as similar to being under house arrest. Different countries have different laws in response to COVID-19. Some nations –again perhaps acting out of fear—have complete lockdowns, everyone has to stay home. If they go out, they may face fines or even go to prison. Other nations allow people to go out for walks as long as they remain two meters from each other. People are also allowed to go out for basic necessities such as food and medications.

Even so, it seems like living in exile since social gatherings are either not allowed or strongly discouraged. For those living alone, I think the sense of exile is likely even more pronounced—since we humans are social beings.

This sense of living in exile is closely related to the reality of lament. Those living alone lament for the days before COVID-19; when they were free to come and go and be with others. Many lament because they cannot go to work or may even have lost their jobs. Others lament not being able to be with a love one who is dying in the hospital. Those who are dying may be lamenting that they cannot say their final words in the presence of their loved ones. Those who have lost loved ones lament not being able to have a proper funeral service for their loved ones. Children may lament that they cannot attend school. People of faith lament because they are unable to gather and celebrate important festivals like Passover and Easter. They will have to celebrate at home; and for some, online—yet that is not the same as being physically present with one another.

I believe that exile and lament have the potential to give people of faith a greater appreciation for the Psalter. Many of the Psalms reflect the experiences of exile and lament. In such times once again we have the opportunity to turn to God for help and express all of our thoughts and emotions to him regarding our circumstances. In so doing, hopefully there can be strength to cope with the present situation and hope for the future.

Passover and Easter

Passover and Easter are festivals of hope and freedom. The Israelites celebrate Passover by remembering how God saved them from death and freed them from Egyptian slavery. Against all odds, as they wandered in the wilderness; God chose Moses to lead Israel to the promised land; God also gave them hope in the midst of their hardships in the wilderness that in the future they would live in freedom in the promised land.

Christians celebrate Easter as a festival of hope and freedom too. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not the last word. On that first Easter Sunday—against the powers of sin, death and evil—God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. Easter is a celebration of hope in a new, resurrection life in the future. It’s also hope in the small resurrections in the here-and-now wherever faith, love, peace, goodness and justice prevail. Thanks to the saving work of Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection; we are given a new freedom from the powers of sin, death and evil. That freedom is experienced in part now and permanently in the life to come.

In the case of both Jews and Christians, suffering can never defeat us by the circumstances of life—including the coronavirus. Why? Because we still have the freedom and the hope to respond to such circumstances in ways that are appropriate and life-giving. We can choose, by the grace of God, to love God and love our neighbours.

A Lectionary Reflection on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter

My Lord & My God by H.C. Varghese

On the first Easter evening, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, without the presence of the disciple Thomas. It needs to be emphasized that the locked doors “for fear of the Jews” is something of an anachronism. The first generation of disciples were all Jews, and most likely rather than reading into this pericope a division between Jews and Christians, we need to view the followers of Jesus here as Jews within Judaism. The final division between Jews who did not follow Jesus and those who did had not occurred at this point in time. There were likely several different groups of Jews within Judaism at this time who discussed and debated with one another concerning a variety of matters, including the risen Jesus. However, that doesn’t mean that they were extremely hostile towards one another. No. Rather, it probably means the opposite. We are usually most comfortable discussing and debating matter with whom we are closest to—our friends, family members and colleagues. The phrase “the Jews” then certainly, emphatically, does not mean all Jews, since the disciples themselves were Jews. Were they fearful of themselves on this occasion? Perhaps, or perhaps not, we cannot be certain about that. However, given the events of that last week of Jesus’ life, fear of the disciples even of themselves maybe should not be ruled out as a factor—since they were, among other things, likely experiencing a host of thoughts and emotions, including fear and grief. “The Jews,” if it does not include the disciples, most likely refers to only some Jews—perhaps a small group who made some kind of agreement with the Roman authorities, from which they benefited.

When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, his first words are: “Peace be with you.” The Shalom-Peace greeting was, and still is a common one among Jews and Christians then as well as today. Here it occurs twice, and the second time, as Jesus gives the disciples a commission, a sending out to forgive and retain sins, he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in Paul’s list of fruit of the Holy Spirit in his Letter to the Galatians, Shalom-Peace is mentioned as the third fruit. How we all need that fruit of the Holy Spirit in our churches, synagogues and other places of worship, as well as in our world today! This is especially so after the Islamic terrorists bombing and killing of more than 300 Christians while they were worshipping on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

Three homiletic possibilities: i) The risen Jesus’ commissioning-sending the disciples and Christians of every generation out into the world to share the Holy Spirit’s fruit of Shalom-Peace—especially in the most violent and troubled places of our globe. ii) The importance of forgiveness in our relationships with everyone—especially our enemies during times of mad hatred all around us. iii) A sermon focussing on the disciple Thomas as an exemplar for us—in processing his grief, the movement from doubt and skepticism to faith, the joyful response of confessing the risen Jesus as: “My Lord and my God!” How do we process our grief and move from doubt and skepticism to faith and joy by being among the multitude of generations of not seeing Jesus, yet believing that he is our risen Messiah and Saviour?