On deferring Easter and diving more deeply into Lenten quarantine

As I write the COVID-19 virus is transmitting itself from person to person at an exponential rate. Much of the transmission is happening ‘under the radar’ as people who do not know they have the virus pass it on to others. Governments are desperately seeking to contain the virus by enacting strict ‘social distancing’ rules and closing down venues where people might gather.  This means that many businesses are severely curtailing their activities and their workforces. Perhaps a million people have already lost their jobs, mostly those who were employed as casuals or ‘gig’ workers. The effects on the economy are already profound, with steep losses on stock markets not seen since the Great Depression. But the effect on social cohesion and mental health is likely to be even more profound. For we are social animals. Even those of us who are ‘introverted’ on personality scales will struggle to keep our ‘positive’ on as we are prevented from social intercourse except via video-streaming app or phone. (Many of the poor, of course, do not have even those means of communication). Every anthropologist will tell you that humans need more than digital reproductions of another’s image or sound. We need physical contact – intimate touches, hugs, whispers, non-verbal cues, olfactory interactions – in order to feel that we are part of the tribe, that we belong, that we are safe, secure and loved. If the virus continues to divide us, the already-serious rates of mental illness in post-industrial societies like ours are likely to reach pandemic proportions outstripping the reach of the virus itself.

The church is not, of course, immune from any of this. Because of our foundational ethic to love one’s neighbour as oneself we can see the sense in protecting the vulnerable through spacial distancing. We can see the sense in closing down public gatherings. We can see the sense in passing on public health messages about hygiene.  And, of course, we are seeking to mitigate the social-psychological affects of these lockdowns by connecting our people into pastoral care matrices and making resources available through various media to encourage prayer, worship and a continuing connection to the sacred story in which we find our communal sense of vocation.  None of this makes us immune, however, to feelings of bewildernment, hopelessness and even despair. Many in our communities will struggle terribly in the days to come.

Many of my collegues – both clergy and academic theologians – have been seeking to locate this current existential within the explanatory narratives of Christian faith, both biblical and liturgical. Some are saying that the lockdown of churches places us in something approximating the exile of Israel and Judah’s aristocratic classes to Assyria and Babylon, respectively. We are at home, but we are not at home. Because we cannot meet and encourage each other, because many of the liturgical and missional imperatives we are accustomed to pursuing without inhibition have been forbidden, we find ourselves alientated from the symbolic sources of our communal identity and purpose. We are like the Jerusalemites who found themselves in a strange land where ‘singing the Lord’s song’ seemed almost impossible (Psalm 137).  The irony here, of course, is that those who could not sing the Lord’s song were actually singing the Lord’s song. They were remembering their narrative genealogies and looking to them for guidance. As are our churches right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Before we travel too far down this rabbit-hole, it is important to note that the people of Israel and Judah were taken into exile very much against their collective will. A foreign power swept in from the north, a power with a superior army, and these small federations of God’s people were simply overcome. That is not what is happening to our churches in the midst of this pandemic. For the most part, churches are cooperating with governments because they want to, because their leaders are convinced that the public health measures represent the right – even the ‘Christian’ – thing to do. Are we, then, in a new form of ‘exile’? In some ways, perhaps yes. In most ways, I suspect no.  In saying that, I fully confess that I am weary of the many other ways in which the churches invoke the exile whenever they are feeling ‘got at’ by their critics. I am rarely convinced by arguments that the church is being persecuted in the post-industrial West. We are being ignored and misunderstood. We are being dressed down for our many sins against the vulnerable, certainly, but that is far from the state-sanctioned discrimination that Indigenous people, for example, continue to endure.

Others are turning to the liturgical narratives of Lent and Holy Week for a sense of location, and for good reason. I have heard colleagues speak about being in a ‘long Lent’ in which we shall not, perhaps, be existentially ready for a fulsome celebration of Easter until the statistical ‘curve’ on viral transmission has well-and-truly turned. I have spoken that way myself on social media and in local pastoral letters. It is instructive to note that there is a long-standing relationship between Lent and the notion of quarantine (Latin: forty days) as both a spiritual retreat in a place of wilderness and a paring-back of life in order that life might flourish again. Jim Crace’s astonishing novel, Quarantine, is as fine a meditation upon this connection as I have read.

Others have located themselves and their communities more specifically still: at Good Friday or Holy Saturday, in the place of Jesus’ torture and death, and/or his descent into hell. And there is no doubt that some people, especially those most vulnerable to the full devastation of the virus, might claim an experience that can genuinely sustain that comparison. For most of us, I feel, the analogy is a bit of a stretch. In any case, what people seem to be reaching for here is a sense that the ecclesial lock-down reminds us of the narratives of dislocation and disillusion that overcame both Jesus and the disciples in (some aspects of) the gospel narratives concerning the final week of Jesus’ life.  And certainly, there are connections to be made, if you happen to possess what Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy called an ‘analogical imagination’.

If we consider some of the key narratives presented us by the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent and Holy Week in Year A, we can note a number of analogies with our current existential. On Ash Wednesday we read of a terrible ‘day of the Lord’:

a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come (Joel 2.2).

The army Joel apparently speaks of is an overwhelming military force. But many in our community, from the Prime Minister down, have spoken about the COVID-19 virus as a ‘hidden enemy’ against which we must do battle lest we, too, are overwhelmed. The passage from Joel goes on to call for a ‘return’ to the Lord with ‘fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’ (2.12) out of a recognition that the people of God have themselves contributed to what is about to happen to them. They have abandoned the covenantal relationship with God and the swarming armies from the north form part of the consequence for having done so.

Some have speculated that pandemics such as the one we are living through at present are in some way a consequence for our species’ lack of attention to sound environmental management. John Vidal, in The Guardian, writes that ‘a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19’. As human beings press further and further into rainforests and other places of extraordinary biodiversity, we are being exposed to zoonotic diseases carried by animals that human beings have had little contact with before. Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, studies how changes in land use contribute to the risk. ‘We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,’ she says. ‘Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.’ (The Guardian, March 18 2020). In addition, a large body of research has shown that pandemics often begin in places of poverty and hit those living with poverty hardest. Ben Oppenheim and Gavin Yamey of the Brookings Institute note that poverty is often the reason why people press into rainforests to harvest disease-carrying animals; that malnutrition and existing chronic conditions make people far more susceptible to catching new diseases; and that a lack of medical resources in poor-to-middle-income regions means that new diseases will transmit themselves more quickly and efficiently (‘Pandemics and the Poor’, brookings.edu). Scientists are confirming, it seems, that we are perhaps reaping what we have sown. Our lack of attention to the covenantal commands to steward the land and to care for the poor are making life difficult even for those of us who represent the global rich. Perhaps a ‘return’ to these concerns, a return to the Lord with weeping and mourning and repentant hearts is precisely what is required.  Perhaps we should stop destroying the biosphere on which our lives depend. Perhaps we should start listening to Indigenous wisdom about managing our lands and waterways. Perhaps we should stop exploiting the global south’s resources and impoverishing those who produce our consumer goods. Perhaps loving our neighbours as we love ourselves would actually make a huge difference. Who knew?

The lections that follow in the Lenten sequence might all be characterised as commentaries upon the difference between redeemed and unredeemed desire which, precisely because the COVID-19 has our communities questioning who they when they cannot do what they desire, have the potential to generate yet more analogical bridges into the viral existential.

The Lent 1 lections critique various kinds of will-to-power, whether they be the yearning for God-like knowledge (Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7), a pretending towards self-righteousness (Psalm 32) or our complex fantasies about transcending creaturely finitude (Matthew 4.1-11). The COVID-19 virus, if nothing else, is surely teaching us about the very real limits of our human knowlege and power!  The Lent 2 lections propose a freedom that comes from faith in God’s good election. Abraham trusts God’s gracious promise, and this is credited to him as righteousness (Gen 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17). Nicodemus is counselled by Jesus to be ‘born from above’, to be drowned in water and the Spirit and start life anew as if everything he has learned is wrong, except what the Spirit will then teach him (John 3.1-17).  When our ‘normal’ way of life is proving indequate even to human survival, let alone thriving, this story invites us to fall on our knees and look for the Spirit who alone has the power to re-boot the system in ways that will make for a more profound human flourishing.

The Lent 3 lections discuss redeemed and unredeemed desire through the metaphor of water. The wandering Israelites thirst for water and grumble when it is not provided on demand (Exodus 17.1-7). The woman who comes to draw water at the well learns of a ‘living water’ that Jesus can provide, a water that is able to quench our many desires and wants in a way that ordinary (dead?) water never can. Switching to a food metahor, the narrative then describes precisely what this ‘living’ food (or water) might be: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’. (John 4.5-42). The Samaritan women, and all who hear the story through the evangelist, are invited to participate in Jesus obedience, to fix our hearts and minds only on what God asks us to do. For only if we empty ourselves of all pretence to self-knowledge, self-righteousness, self-generation are we empty enough to receive the gracious action of God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is poured out for us (Romans 5.1-11). God is then able to do the good in and through our newly-formed desire.  Can this ‘living water’, this ‘food’ that Christ gives be read as a kind of anti-viral, or perhaps a new kind of virus which has the potential to shut down and remake our human systems from the ground up? Is it like the messianic ‘one’ in the Matrix movies who is able to re-set our contaminated human matrices so that they are more godly in their aspirations?  Read this way, the COVID-19 virus might be both an angel of death and an angel of light at the same time. Like the French word poison, which can mean both ‘poison’ and ‘medicine’, perhaps the virus is like a cleanser which exposes what is wrong in order to make room for what is right.

The Lent 4 lections play with images of perception, with light and dark. The dark is a state of blindness, a blindness which can be brought on, somewhat paradoxically, by the brightness and attractiveness of exernal apperances. Samuel is told by the Lord not to look at the beauty or stature of the men who might be king of Israel, but at the godliness of their hearts (1 Sam 16.1-13). Indeed, and to flip the metaphor over, one can have the brightness of God’s company and comfort even when you are walking through a very dark valley (Psalm 23). The long excursis in John 9.1-41 explores these themes with a poetic density rarely matched since. A man born blind is healed by Jesus so that he can see. Paradoxically, however, he remains blind with regard to who Jesus is, and how Jesus saves the world, until the point when he hears Jesus name himself ‘Son of Man’ and responds by declaring ‘I believe’. The Jewish interlocutors, though they can literally see, are declared ‘blind’ by Jesus because they refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The passage concludes with these words:

I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Here again people of faith are asked to confess their blindness in order to really see, to renounce their faith in the commonplace and the obvious in order to make room for faith in God. Perhaps, in the midst of the COVID-19 crises, we are being called to account in exactly the same way Jesus’ interlocutors in John’s gospel are being called to account. Perhaps our faith in ourselves and our righteousness before God is being questioned. Perhaps our habitual complacency with regard to the covenantal responsibility to care for the earth and for the poor is being brought out of the dark and into the light? Perhaps our consumerist habits, and our scandalous comfort with capitalist notions of trickle-down wealth, are being exposed for the lies that they are?

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5.8-11).

I consider it the height of irony that when the rich are finally exposed to something that might actually hurt them, their stable of politicians is suddenly willing to introduce all the socialist policies that councils of social services and welfare agencies have been calling for in earnest since the late 1980s. A universal living wage, even if you are jobless.  Programmes to guarantee that folk have a roof over their heads. Massive funding boosts for essential services. Profound levels of support for small business and a return to the local manufacturing of essential goods. Perhaps the threat of a virus that can kill us all is what it takes to teach the rich the lesson of human solidarity: that we thrive together or we die together.

Of the marvelous lections for Lent 5, which reflect more directly on matters of life and death, I will say very little except by way of a poem sent me by a friend, and written to interpret the existential in which we find ourselves explicitly within the frame of John’s gospel, chapter 11:

it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every three years.
it is our story;
it is about us;
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
of loneliness;
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
we hope,
we pray,
we yearn,
we listen
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
“come out!”
we are not casual bystanders;
we are Lazarus
waiting . . .
(c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman

‘Can these bones live?’ asks the Lord of Ezekiel the prophet. The bones of economic systems which leave the poor on a scrap heap; the bones of ecological practices which exploit our rivers, waterways, oceans and lands until they have no life left in them; the bones of our education systems, which strip away the capacity for wisdom and replace it with technocratic forms of knowledge which leave us dry and gasping and empty; the bones of a church which has lost its way by preying on the weak and the vulnerable, by losing its prophetic voice, and by its nostalgic yearings for a rapprochement with the State and with power?  Ultimately God would have us long not for a resucitation of these deadly ways of life, but for a nailing of such idols to the cross with Jesus so that there can be a new beginning, a ‘new experience with experience’ as Jungel would say. We do not need a tweaking of what we have already had, in the mode of Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return of the same’. What we need is resurrection. The arrival of the really and genuinely new: a flash that is able to clear our eyes and make us see what we have never seen before. Resurrection is not something we can make. It is only something that we can receive. By dying to all our self-sponsored performances of faith. By trusting in Christ. By falling to our knees with him and saying ‘Not my will, but yours’.

The corona virus has forced us to consider the possibility of a longer, more profound Lenten quarantine. Many of our church leaders are rushing around more busily than ever, as if by their increased activity they might become the messianic answer we long for, as if they might thereby ‘induce’ the new birth of Easter through the deployment of condensed ceremonial into people’s homes via streaming technologies.  While such deployments are clearly well-intentioned, they are really most unlikely to address the sheer depth of our now-more-exposed-than-ever spiritual poverty and loneliness.  Lent has always been a time for hearing and owning the truth, for the confession of sins and the exorcism of false spirit – first for catechumens who might embrace the faith at Easter baptisms, but then, also, for all Christians to walk that way again through the act of sponsorship and solidarity. The existential into which the virus has thrust us is therefore an opportunity for a more thorough-going Lent, a Lent in which our privations are more real than imagined and therefore more profoundly effective as a school of faith. If we embrace the possibility before us, we might learn again to live as creatures of God rather than of the market. We might learn to be still and listen for God’s voice, the voice that can give life to the dead, rather than to rush around with strategies ingeniously designed to avoid that encounter. We might learn to be humble again, to renounce our schemes for propping up the crumbling edifice of church and society, and look anew for the God who can animate even the poorest of soil with spirit. We might learn, again, a poverty which is able to renounce all that we think we know, all that we think we must cling to, in order to learn again the way of the suffering Christ.

If we rush, too quickly, to Easter, we might miss these opportunities, these riches. And our celebrations of Easter would, perhaps, feel even more false than usual.  As a catholic Christian, who believes very much in the spiritual profundity of the church year, I would normally be on the side of those who argue against any departure from the usual flow of the seasons or of the lectionary. But we are now presented with a once-in-a-century crisis and opportunity. If there is ever to be a time when we might defer our celebrations of Easter, this is most likely it.

What I am suggesting, more concretely, is an extension of Lent through engaging, for example, a more thorough examination of the pre-exilic and exilic prophetic narratives, especially Jeremiah, First Isaiah, Lamentations, Joel, Amos, Micah and Zephaniah. Each of these reflect upon the ways in which national life in Israel and Judah had seriously departed from the covenantal settlements contained in the Torah. These reflections might be accompanied by gospel narratives taken from the lections for ordinary time, which explore the concrete demands of living a life of faith, and with a more thorough reading of the Pauline books of 1 and 2 Corinthians, which reflect at length of what can go wrong in the church’s relationship with the dominant social and political culture.  The books of Daniel and Revelation, with their apocalyptic reflections on faithfulness in a time of Empire, might also be thrown into the mix.

The readings and reflections of Holy Week (along with whatever ceremonial is possible) might be reserved, therefore, for the week immediately prior to the Sunday when churches can safely gather again for the first time following the ban on public worship.  This Sunday, whenever it might come, might then be wholeheartedly celebrated as the arrival of Easter, and the full ceremonial of the entire Easter season might follow, right through to Pentecost.  Can you imagine what that would be like, after all the privation, after all the spacial distancing, after all that living of a more circumscribed life? It would be brimming over with joy, the joy that comes with the arrival of the dawn after a long, dark, night of the soul. Can you see the anticipation on the faces of those who gather to process the new fire into the darkened church? Can you see their smiles as the exultet is sung and the resurrection is proclaimed in a sudden blaze of light? Can you see their laughter at the startling preaching of Chrysostom’s Easter sermon? Can you imagine that laughter erupting again, spontaneously, at the renewal of baptismal vows and the asperges with water? Can you hear the chatter and imagine the hugs and kisses of renunion at the greeting of peace? Can you imagine the smiles of satisfaction and gratefulness as the sacrament is placed in human hands for the first time in many, many months? And the champagne, and the cake, and the general merriment afterward?  It would be an Easter like none other in living memory. It would be the Easter you can have if you’ve rediscovered Lent. Really rediscovered it. Like finding a treasure so incomparable in a field that you are willing to sell everything you have to obtain it.

Now, there is nothing more certain than my losing this particular argument on the grounds of historical precedent in time of plague, or else the necessity and duty of conservatism when discussing liturgical change. Some might argue, pragmatically, that there is no prospect in contemporary times of our calling an ecumencial council with sufficient authority to change the rules. Still, there is occasionally some truth in small voices that speak to almost no-one out there on the edge of the wilderness . . .

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