From dust you came and to dust you shall return.
Whether the world wanted it or not, the powerful and pervasive COVID-19 virus has imposed a Lenten reality on all of us.
Not everyone celebrates Lent and there are many who don’t even know what it is. The 40-day season started on February 27th with Ash Wednesday. Lent provides its participants with many unique opportunities but there are a few specific impacts that are worth noting during this unusual season.
Lent provides a window of time to embrace and wrangle with our own mortality. Pastors and priests rub literal ashes onto the foreheads of those who attend the Ash Wednesday service to remind them that they are mere dust and will one day return to the dust when they die. With COVID-19 being highly contagious and lethal for some, we are waking up to the reality that we (or those within our circle of loved ones) are especially vulnerable. It has been a long time since so many of us on this planet have realized how frail we actually are.
Secondly, Lent invites us to surrender or fast from some thing or some activity that is an ordinary part of our lives. For this reason, individuals often give up alcohol, television, social media, or chocolate just to name a few. The principle behind this 40-day fast is not to invite misery into your life by sacrificing something you love but to give up something you love in order to make room for something even better – namely the power and presence of Christ. Lent, properly understood, is a time for the reflective individual to reanalyze and potentially reorder her treasure.
The threatening invasion of COVID-19 has imposed sanctions on us and simultaneously taken things from us. The social distancing, closure of our schools and churches, and “work from home” scenarios have reduced most of our plans to ashes. Arguably our greatest treasure, our personal freedom, has been snatched from us. Our gyms, community groups, friends, and familiar routines are closed to many of us now. For us as Americans this is startling and jarring. We are comfortably familiar with being able to go where we want and to do what we wish. Depending on how dear those privileges were to us are to the same degree that we have been dysregulated or devastated. The greater the treasure, the greater the damage by the theft once it’s taken from us.
But perhaps we have been given something as well. Many of us now have more time than we’ve ever had before. The helter-skelter of our lives has come to a grinding halt. A little over a week ago, time was something we never had enough of. Now we have an excess of it. While the shelves of our local stores are being ransacked by anxious shoppers, we suddenly have a stockpile of extra time. But how will we use it? Lent would teach us that we have time to press into Christ, to pray, to reflect, and to practice radical compassion.
For now, many of us feel as if we’re trapped in a traffic jam and we can’t wait for the highway of “life as usual” to open up again so we can blindly race at the speeds that we are used to. And yet even traffic jams can invite us to look out the window and see clouds, budding foliage, and the faces of fellow image bearers in the cars beside us – things we would ordinarily miss as nothing more than blurs beyond our windows as we press the gas pedal. Stuck at home and slowed down, we can really behold and hold our children or spouses. There’s time to savor coffee instead of grabbing it and whisking out the door on our way to work. A tortoise pace in a rabbit race world might gift us the time we need to properly rest, reflect, and genuinely attune ourselves to those in the spaces we call home.
Will we embrace this gift of time and awareness or will we suffocate the new margin in our lives by drowning it with glowing screens, angst-ridden newsfeeds, and mindless entertainment? More time affords new opportunity for something better, but will we recognize what we have?
Life-threatening viruses also remind us that people we take for granted are treasures. Perhaps our parents have been on our minds and in our prayers more than normal. Their texts and phone calls aren’t as easy to ignore or sidestep. Friends and family with weakened immune systems feel especially important. We are encumbered with the reality that our intentional distance from them is the best gift we can offer right now. The current instruction that being anti-community is the best way for community to flourish is an odd and sobering paradox in these dire days. The most vulnerable among us – the elderly, the isolated, the sickly, and the poor – the very ones Jesus us told us to care for in Matthew 25 – are the very ones we are told to distance ourselves from in order for them to survive.
These are curious times to embody the hands and feet of Jesus. Compassion can be creative. Hopefully we will discover and rally around new ways to legitimately support the most vulnerable among us.
Lent concludes with the glory of Easter Sunday and the unshakable reminder that resurrection will always have the final say. During these days in isolation with our families it is worth contemplating – what does resurrection look like for me? Is it merely a return to life as normal? Or is it a chance to recalibrate, refocus, and reorient our hearts, minds, souls, and very lives?
One theologian once said, “You can never get to Easter morning until you pass through Good Friday – death precedes resurrection.” Perhaps these words have never been more poignant. COVID-19 has invited us to crucify certain things in our lives – namely our propensity to do whatever we want when we want. Most of us are unfamiliar with being immobilized, pinned between the nails and the wood of life.
But Christ never regained His life until He willingly expired first. His “cross” was far more vicious and grueling than anything we are enduring at the moment. His resolve to stay there until he died was unflinching. He did not rise from the dead until He was buried, hidden in the earth, and sealed behind a stone. He was never restored to His friends, community, and His Father until He was abandoned by them. As our perfect example, He blazed a trail before us on what it means to die to self so that others might live.
Times like these beg us to investigate what about us might also need to expire. We must consider what rights, desires, and demands we should bury so that others can live. Providing life for those we care about might only be birthed through the extermination of privileges we hold on to too dearly. We must choose if we will surrender joyfully, like Christ, to the circumstances, or instead choose to rage against the nails and the restrictions. We have already seen tremendous examples of those exercising restraint and seclusion for the sake of others. We have also witnessed those who are claiming that nothing will stop them from doing what they want when they want.
For many of us our greatest loss, at the moment, is our personal freedom. Let us be mindful that others are literally losing their lives. Still others are experiencing the death of their hourly jobs and therefore their income to support their families. As we are instructed to say “no” to community and business as usual we are simultaneously saying “yes” to keeping people safe and healthy and ultimately restoring health to society and the economy. With that said, our wallets are not sanctioned to maintain social distancing, and there are plenty of opportunities to lavishly support front-line endeavors to bring food, supplies, and assistance to those in dire need.
Let us never forget that resurrection is not a return to business as usual or merely reclaiming what once was. Resurrection is always an upgrade to something better – a life far more refined, robust, renewed, and resilient. This is the living hope of the Christian. Our lasting hope is embodied in the risen Jesus and the fact that His resurrection has proven that life, light, hope, unity, and flourishing will always have the last word. COVID-19 will eventually run its course. In the meanwhile, will we participate in pursuing resurrection by dying to ourselves? And if so, what will resurrection look like for the church, the world, and for us as individuals?
COVID-19 has thrust us headlong into a unique crucible of sanctification. We must grapple with our own mortality and the frailty of those we love. We live in the uncharted place of being told that isolating ourselves from the people and the routines we love is the best way to love our neighbors. In the midst of Lent, we are gifted with a path for spiritual reflection that helps us see how shedding excess baggage is good and dying to our own rights is doable. We are also presented with the wondrous promise that everything ends with an empty tomb, radiant life, and hope everlasting.