Saturday, April 11, 2020
[Delivered in Video Format at St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 10, 2020]
Author’s Note: The video at the link and text below were created as part the annual Seven Last Words service at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Because of the need for social distancing in what Daniel Defoe would call this “Plague Year”, the service was streamed and recorded on video at the link. I commend the words, prayers and music created by my friends and colleagues at my beloved St. Barts to your attention. This little reflection is only a small piece of a mosaic created by the people of the parish in what very well may prove to be our Finest Hour—separated physically, but united in love and prayer for the people of God and the World.
The last time I drove from our apartment in Brooklyn back to Albany was only a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help notice how empty the City’s streets were. The BQE, which is always choked with traffic was wide open. No traffic in Queens of the Bronx. The silence, the lack of people in every neighborhood I drove through, were eerie.
It was an arrest of life, to steal a phrase from C.P. Snow’s 1970 novel Last Things.
Our Diocese, like many others, of all denominations, has eliminated in-person group worship services, livestreaming services to feed the spiritual needs of the people of God in a time of famine. Our bishops have announced that, as long as the people of God cannot receive the Eucharist, they will fast from it, in solidarity with us.
After months of false optimism, the White House has accepted the necessity of social distancing, school closure, and staying at home. Even with those measures, the coronavirus task force “predict[s] a best case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities in the United States.”
That’s their best case scenario, though there is some dispute about the numbers.
The emptiness of the streets, the closing of theaters, restaurants and bars, the lack of human contact are the markers of that arrest of life. A life on pause, waiting to see what happens next.
In my lifetime, our nation has been brash, sure of itself, and increasingly hubristic. Since the end of the war in Viet Nam, the fall of then-President Richard Nixon, and the end of the “malaise” described by then-President Jimmy Carter, we have seen American exceptionalism become an article of faith, one nobody could question. The last superpower.
Today, like every other nation on this small blue globe circling an indifferent Sun, we wait. We wait for the “all clear” sign, or for the descent into something worse. We wait for symptoms to manifest in ourselves, or in those we love. We watch and we wait.
For the first time in my life, America is afraid.
We weren’t after 9-11. We were angry, we were hurt, but our City was NOT afraid after the Towers fell, and the Nation as a whole didn’t quail.
But in this time of fear, those of us who have no active role can be tempted to despair—to glibly invoke Stephen King’s pandemic novel The Stand, or The Walking Dead, and to think of this virus as a\the scourge of an angry, Jonathan Edwards version of God punishing His people.
We are hard-wired to feel fear; it can be, as Steven Moffat has written, a “superpower”—as Moffat wrote, “So much blood and oxygen pumping though your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you can run faster and you can fight harder, you can jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time.”
But that superpower is a liability when there is nothing tangible to grapple with. We are trapped with our fear, and it can lead to despair.
Jesus said to his disciples, over and over, Be. Not. Afraid.
And He knew despair.
As death came for Him, he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What a desolating fall from the spontaneous pomp and pageantry of Palm Sunday.
Of course, Jesus had warned the disciples that he would be put to death, but this cry of abandonment, of despair, coming from Jesus after His courage throughout His long ordeal is especially heart wrenching.
There are some who try to take some of the harsh edge off this moment. Professor Michael Guinan, of the Fransiscan School of Theology in Berkeley points these words come from Psalm 22—they are the very first words of the psalm, and, although the psalm may begin with a cry of despair, it ends with praise and thanksgiving. The psalm is, ultimately, “the prayer of a just one who suffers innocently, of one who is surrounded by enemies and mocked precisely because of his fidelity to God. When God hears his cry and delivers [him] , the just one offers praise and thanksgiving.” For Guinan, “these are not words of despair but an expression of faith.”
But the knowledge that he would put to death wouldn’t necessarily protect Jesus from the horror of actually going through the ordeal that culminated in his death. Betrayed, by his own disciples, arrested on false charges, denounced by his own people and handed over to the Roman occupiers.
Crucifixion was a protracted death, one that was meant to break the spirit of the condemned and terrify the rest of the populace into submission to the unquestioned might of Rome. It’s a lower class version of the Roman practice of the damnatio memoriae, which eliminates every trace of the discredited victim’s accomplishments and life.
All of the humiliations inflicted on Jesus at each step of the way are meant to deprive him of his dignity, reduce him from the charismatic teacher and prophet who rode into Jerusalem a scant five days before to a pariah. An outcast. By destroying the condemned man’s honor, the degradation ritual which ends with his death as a public spectacle doesn’t just destroy the body of the man—it is intended to erase Him as ever having been a member of the community, and to erase His impact on the lives of all who saw Him.
And through it all, Jesus maintained a stoical front. His words are laced with the comfort he provided to those he loved—his mother, and St. John, the beloved disciple who becomes her son. Even the repentant thief, a complete stranger, finds comfort in Jesus’s promise that they would be together in Paradise that very day.
That Jesus, like any person, would shrink from the physical horror of death we all fear doesn’t make this cry an act of despair. But his quoting Psalm 22 isn’t serene. It isn’t a final scoring of an academic point on a debate. Jesus is, as Guinan says, making a statement, but not an academic one.
Herman Wouk in his novel War and Remembrance explains the Yiddish word “dafka” as meaning “perversely, ironically, despite everything.” It carries a wry bit of humor whenever it is used. And that’s how it seems to me Jesus is invoking Psalm 22. He cries out the opening line, articulating the agony of abandonment, implying the rest of the psalm—the Lord’s rescue of the just man, the reinstatement of all that has been lost, and, ultimately, the reconciliation of a fractured sin-stained world.
Jesus believes, dafka,that all this will happen, that he will be restored, despite all the evidence of his senses. Far from being the obliterated, His name will live on, and His legacy will be a movement that stands against the brutal strength of Rome, and for the reconciliation of all humanity. The reign of love—God’s love—will prevail, and the gates of hell itself will not prevail against it.
We believe, dafka, that all this is true, more true than the news on television that can be so wearying and depressing. You all believe it, or you wouldn’t be spending three hours with us today, mourning the death of an itinerant Jewish preacher two thousand years ago, and, even in our mourning celebrating dafka the transforming power of love to convert our hearts, and the hearts of those who we hate, and who hate us.
Albert Einstein said that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. Here in our fractured nation, can we really continue viewing our fellow Americans, our sisters and brothers who are as weighted down by this crisis as we are, as enemies? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his daily press conferences on March 31, 2020, rejected the idea, saying “There are no red states, there are no blue states. The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans, it kills all Americans,” and added “Keep that in mind.”
Keep that in mind. We are all equally vulnerable, all fearfully looking to our loved ones, hoping that they will not get sick, or if they do, that they will be part of the 80% who recover. The “Other” we dislike or even hate—well, they’re in the same boat with us. And so our belief in love, the only engine of survival, is no longer a belief we cling to, dafka, but a necessity. We need the Other; the Other needs us. Because at the end of things, we are the squabbling, annoying family of humanity, not different tribes. And in this moment, when we are all winded and bruising and vulnerable, we can see in the weary humanity of those whom we have struggled maybe too fiercely, too sure of our own righteousness, we can see not a stranger, but a brother. A sister, a mother, a father, an aunt, an uncle.
And come together, as all families do, in times of trouble, and learn to love one another all over again.
In the Name of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit.