It was the most chaotic and uncertain, disorienting and bewildering, stressful and scary Lent-HolyWeek-Easter that’s ever been, unless we’ve been at the brink of our own death. In that first week of our national lockdown I went numb and underwent a visceral experience of the term discombobulated. I’m a parish priest; all the Lenten and Easter plans, including Sunday worship, went out the window in one fell swoop. The pastoral visits to shut-ins and elderly — stop. It was brutal and heart-breaking. Now what? Covid-19 has brought a shocking halt to the world and the church as we knew them. Normal and habitual is out the door; unsettledness and threat have invaded every country without exception. The power of this invisible, destructive virus is almost unparalleled in its capacity to destroy our illusions of control and comfort.
Maybe this resembles in no small measure the threat and turmoil of that first Holy Week over 2000 years ago, when the world stopped, the sky darkened and the curtain of the Temple tore in two. That very first Easter did not take place in a decorated worship space with exuberant Alleluias. On the contrary, a bewildered band of disciples were shaking behind locked doors, fearing for their lives — not unlike people in some parts of the world today. Not only the Roman occupiers were out for blood, so were their own religious leaders after killing the blasphemer Jesus. It was dangerous out there. Fear devoured any confidence and courage the disciples might have had previously.
Yes, women had brought them outrageous news, that Messiah, the Anointed One, that promising prophet Jesus of Nazareth whom they had followed for three years, somehow had risen from the dead and was alive. But you know women, can’t believe every word they say. Besides, believing their message seemed too good to be true. They were nobody’s fool. If they left the place, their lives and the lives of loved ones could be at risk. Could a miracle really have happened? Could life really have won out over death? Could this time of terror and fear really come to an end?
The news of Christ’s victorious resurrection has not changed. But the world around us has. Or has it? The pain that always lurks just below the surface has been freshly uncovered. This year, we did not gather in community to mark the holy days. Churches were empty. Confined to home, we prayed and created rituals as best we could on our own with help from online worship services and inspiring reflections (thank God we have safe homes to retreat into). But the numbness and shock over the Covid-19 pandemic is making every heart shake like a leaf, playing havoc with every attempt to keep the faith and to trust God; the insidious, invisible virus maybe even mocked the prayers from our lips. After all, what does resurrection mean when people near and far are dying by the thousands? What good is it to proclaim that the tomb is empty when ventilators and body bags are in short supply, when loved ones can’t even be present at the deathbed of a relative, let alone bury them?
Alone with their fears, the disciples wondered if hope was possible, if the long night might someday be over and if morning would ever break — refugees know these questions all too well. Could it be that God’s love was the most powerful of all, even though it didn’t seem quite real yet? Jesus came to them right through the locked doors of their hiding place and their hearts: “Peace be with you … do not be afraid.”
What is it like to meet God in our hiding places, in our places of quarantine and deepest despair? Infused with new hope and mercy and love, which drove fear and cowardice from their spirits, the disciples eventually left their hiding place, and went about with new boldness celebrating and spreading the good news that Jesus was risen and love was the most powerful force on the earth.
This year, we are getting a vivid taste of what that first Easter was like, fearing an invisible enemy. Do we dare to believe that hope is on the horizon, that new life is possible after Covid-19? The disciples were freed from their fear once they had a personal visceral experience of the risen Jesus, not because they hammered some doctrine into their heads. The Christian faith is incarnational for every believer, meaning that the human heart needs to meet Christ on the rocky ground of our lives, in the crucible of our worst fears, in the messiness of our most serious sinfulness.
Someday, when it is safe for all, we will come out of our homes and gather together again. My prayer is that each of us will have had a personal encounter with the risen Christ in the depths of our own despair, and that this encounter will fill us with light and life and love and mercy anew. Then our singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say, will resound across the globe and it will sound very real. Anything not borne from an intimate visceral encounter with the light of Christ risks sounding hollow and archaic, an ancient watered down memory that the world does not need.
For once, this crisis is pulsating with the promise of a real, visceral Easter. We are still locked in our houses, the economy crippled, the social fabric of our culture in a holding cell. Yes, good and creative things are happening in the midst of the lockdown; God’s light is striving to break through. But most us remain frightened by the uncertainty of the future, hungering and thirsting for resurrection. It will happen. If God raised Jesus from the dead, trampling down death by death, then surely a virus will be trampled down and usher in a new dawn of hope for all people. Christ is risen — Alleluia.