There is that old gag – “If priests went on strike…would anyone notice?” Now you don’t have to answer that…but it is now closer to being fact than being a funny.
The announcement this week by the Episcopal Conferences of both Scotland and England/Wales to suspend all public worship brought home, to those of the Catholic faith, the seriousness of this pandemic. The Eucharist, “source and summit” of all we are is now being denied to the faithful. We can’t go to Communion nor be in communion with each other. This is true also in the other Christian traditions when similar announcements were made and to other faiths when Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, Gurdwaras…also closed their doors to the faithful. It starkly brought home to us what we take for granted.
It is true that we don’t fully appreciate things until we are denied them. We only think of water when we are thirsty, we long for light when we are plunged into the dark, we crave food when we realise that we are hungry. As human beings we too easily take things for granted and it is sadly when we don’t have them that we learn to appreciate them. Or when we see someone worse off than ourselves… “I complained because I had no moccasins until I saw a man with no feet.” (Native American Proverb)
And so to social distancing or self-isolation. I am sure this has been met with… “How will I cope?” or “I can’t do that.” or “I need to see them” – if you are an extravert! For those of the introversion preference it may come as a welcome relief to the rigours of socialising or a chance to get ‘time to myself’ or the opportunity to work away quietly at completing all those things needing to be done. We suddenly realise we have taken our need for others for granted.
The last time I self-isolated was when I did an 8 Day Silent Retreat before my final vows. By day two I was talking to myself in the mirror whilst shaving! We all find our ways to cope.
And it is in our coping that we display who we are. Some have gone into selfish mode, stockpiling things they will never need nor use! Others in denial that this is nothing more than something from a Dan Brown novel and it’s all been exaggerated. Some others are convinced they are invincible and that ‘it will never affect me!’ I hope these are just from a faction of humanity. For most of us there is a breadth of emotions ranging from caution to fear, from anxiety to concern, from common sense to contrived non-sense.
I think the underlying fear is of the unknown. Like the original sin of Genesis, we don’t like not knowing everything, we crave full knowledge. But, this is something we have never faced, it is new, it is unseen, it knows no boundaries. It also reminds us of the downside of globalisation, the adverse aspect of living in a global village. I believe our fear is compounded by our inability – our inability to give answers, to explain, to see the whole picture, to know what to do and, ultimately, our inability to be in control.
In the face of this, the last thing we can do is despair. Despair is the antithesis of being a Christian, the antagonist of or faith. There is never an opportune time for a pandemic but the trials of Lent leading to the triumph of Easter could indeed be deemed a fairly appropriate time. We are approaching the great feast of victory over evil, of the Divine authority over human frailty, of limitless over limited, of life over death. This is the feast where we acknowledge and celebrate that nothing can stand in the way of God’s all-powerful love, not even the tomb. However, before we get the balloons and the bubbly ready, we need to pass through the passion. The suffering of Jesus reminds us that our sins have consequences be it personal sin, social sin or ecological sin. Our present day sufferings may well be the result of our sins too, (and that demands due reflection and action) but we celebrate the fact that God’s love is omnipotent and it’s that belief that gets us through the “vale of tears.”
So, as we endure our present passion, let us not forget where it can lead us, if we but open our hearts to that transforming love of the Father. We can stand beating our breasts, tear-filled and petrified at the foot of the cross or run, hearts bursting, joy filled and glorified at the empty tomb.
The choice is ours.
I pray that as we live these uncertain times, we take certainty from the Easter message, and place our hope in God’s unfathomable love. The angel Gabriel told Mary at the annunciation “Do not be afraid…Nothing is impossible to God.” This is our faith and as we move through these times may we be comforted from that phrase uttered many times by Jesus “Do not be afraid…your faith has saved you.”
May the Passion give strength to us and Easter pour blessings on us.
– Jim Clarke, s.x.