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I ’m reading the novel The Plague by Albert Camus at the moment. It’s set in French-Algerian Oran, and follows Dr. Bernard Rieux as he responds to a growing plague in his city. At the beginning of the book, rats start vacating sewers and cellars and dying in the streets. Then a few people fall violently ill and die. Then the number of cases keeps multiplying.
Rieux, like the rest of the town, is slow to recognize the threat. Camus writes that “the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise — since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
It certainly feels like COVID-19 has crashed down on us from a blue sky over the last couple of months. My neighborhood in center city Philadelphia, teeming with activity just weeks ago, is empty, eerie. “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!”
Most everyone I know has been disrupted in some way or another by the coronavirus. Congregants who are medical professionals or essential workers are exhausted, picking up extra shifts as co-workers end up quarantined. Friends who are business owners are trying to figure out how to stay afloat. I’ve heard from two friends in the last two days who are grieving loved ones who’ve died alone in quarantine. I’m guessing, wherever you’re reading this at, you’ve experienced something of the same.
I feel this acutely this week, in Holy Week. On the one hand, I’ve marveled at the resourcefulness and nimble missional agility I’ve watched over the last weeks — pastors working out how to livestream worship on just a few days’ notice, Christian communities mobilizing to feed the food-insecure, and counselors providing care at a distance.
Last Sunday, some congregations brought Palm Sunday palms to homes as if they were delivering contactless takeout food. In the next few days, other colleagues are orchestrating drive-thru or online Good Friday services. Some friends who are musicians even recorded an album of Psalm-inspired songs while social-distancing in separate places.
And yet, I feel the absence of the flesh-and-blood Church this week. Last year, I — like you, probably — celebrated Easter in a packed sanctuary, brimming with a palpable joy. We sang songs of resurrection, shared the body and blood of the risen Lord, announced the good news of the empty tomb. Our family spent the day at brunches and parties hosted by church members, toasting and feasting and laughing.
This year, we’ll observe Easter in our living room, and share an Easter dinner with a few extended family members over a Zoom call.
I wonder if the strange moment we’re in might be something of a Holy Saturday for the Church in the West. Holy Saturday is the day the Church remembers the burial of Jesus, the finality and void before the surprise of Resurrection. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his excellent essay on Holy Saturday in Mysterium Paschale, points out that the day between Good Friday and Easter is about “the solidarity of the Crucified with all the human dead.” It’s about Jesus joining humanity in the void, in nothingness, in all places of death.
Holy Saturday invites us into spiritual practices we’re culturally allergic to: waiting, stillness, lament.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem East Coker, puts it like this:
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing…
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.”
This Holy Week, as entire industries have ground to a halt, as the Church is in social-distanced isolation, and as the future seems fraught and uncertain, perhaps we’re being invited to slow down, to be still, to bring our sorrow and the sorrow of the world to full expression in the presence of her Creator.
And then to wait — for whatever it is the God who raises the dead is up to.