a resource for this time of COVID-19 social distancing
By the Rev. Cathy Gray
Before Jesus began his ministry, before there was even a whiff of Lent, or Death, or Resurrection, or Easter, Jesus withdrew from what was familiar to him. He chose to re-locate himself for forty days to a wilderness place, a place that, in his day, was not so much a retreat space as it was a place to be avoided. Bandits hid there, and strange, gnarled branches that just might be alive.
He chose hunger. Jesus was no John the Baptist. He apparently didn’t have skills at scooping honey from the hive, or discerning locusts from ... well, from the even more unsavory insects he might stumble upon and hesitantly bite into.
Jesus chose hardship for this forty days. Stone pillows, branches and fallen leaves for cover from the cold. He chose to lie awake with the strange and haunting sounds of the night - not the simple bumps and creaks of walls settling as the air warms and chills, but the chirps and the shrill calls of night birds, the howling of wolves, and the snorts and snuffling and growling of whatever prowled or nested or hunted in darkness.
Wilderness in the first century AD was not a delight but a thing to fear - it was a certain danger, the people believed; it was a place of such mystery that to even travel along its edges - or to journey through it - took courage, strong heart. It was folly to choose to be there alone; one who would stay for forty days might be seen, on return, as occupying a space somewhere between absolute fool and stunning miracle. There is evidence that Jesus was seen as both.
Early on, in the beginning of the Christian order, this season in Jesus’ life became the model for a vital period in the lives of those who would follow him. The idea of putting aside those things that can lull us into a vague sense of comfort and those things that crowd our lives to the point of distracting us, came to be seen as a way of focusing minds and hearts on the true center of our life itself - specifically, God! And along with a clearer vision of God comes a renewal of our sense of what matters, a renewal of our commitment to those around us - those who struggle with the wilderness places of hunger, fear, injustice, uncertainty, marginalization. For those among us who are the hungry or the marginalized, Lent and the focus on God may lend a new sense of hope or courage, of a new, bold heart ready to demand justice and seek peace.
This year, though, Lent is winding its way through our global community in ways both mysterious and unwelcome. This is a Lent that doesn’t give us choices of whether or not we will refocus our lives. It has pushed us all into a wilderness we could not have predicted last time we celebrated the Resurrection. It has forced us to reconsider the meaning of community, the boundaries of togetherness, and the health implications of things as simple and as cherished as hugs and handshakes and kissing babies.
This year, Lent has quite literally gone viral. In 2020 Lent has taken on the code name of Covid 19. It doesn’t care what our usual early-spring traditions are, doesn’t care about our usual faith expressions or even whether we are people of faith at all. This year, we will all spend days, weeks, in the wilderness; many will spend it quite alone, many will face more than their fair share of frightening noises in the night, or of equally frightening silence in their days.
I don’t like some aspects of this Lent at all. I don’t like it when people are lonely or afraid - or angry about feeling a need to joust with mythical windmills (and confronting this virus can certainly feel that senseless). But I get it, I guess. If I had only a newscaster for a friend, day in and day out, I’d be angry. And I am angry, because I can’t fix this for anyone.
So, indeed, we find ourselves in an odd wilderness, a place that most of us alive today have never experienced. All around us those things we take for granted are being shuttered - schools, museums, libraries, in some places even parks and zoos. I have to say, this just isn’t normal! I’ve recently been wishing for a bit more free time; now I have it and I’m not thrilled. I’m not sure what to do or how to feel or how to interact with neighbors and with strangers in the market. I’ve rarely ever in my life been bored, but just yesterday I found myself standing still, staring at a wall, and wondering if boredom would strike about a week on; would I actually run out of things to do and ideas to explore, petty things to worry over? Probably not, but I could make myself crazy fretting over such possibility, so I gave it a name - Anticipatory Boredom - then boxed it up and moved on.
Only a matter of a few days ago I thought, surely, we would experience the comfort of emerging from this Lenten wilderness journey just on time to hold one another through the empty sadness of Holy Week. I thought we would stand together to witness the light’s return and the resounding joy of the first Eucharist of Easter. Now, we know that we are to have an extension in our Lenten journey; this Covid version of Lent will last for more than its allotted forty days.
I’m thinking it may be helpful this year if we can rethink wilderness just a bit, maybe bring it more in line with our more contemporary understanding of wilderness as a rich and lovely and generous place...ok, yes, and sometimes a scary place even still! In the forest the floor is soft, cushioning and quieting your step. In a good wilderness the air is cooler, scented with the wild and the mysterious - ready to gift us with sights and sounds we would miss if we didn’t take courage and venture into such places. We might find the paw prints of a bear, sight a fawn in a meadow, be surprised by a frog on the stream bank. In a wilderness time, if we can find a way to love it for what it is, we will emerge, when we emerge, graced with lungs renewed and filled with Ruach, God’s Spirit-Breath that blew across the waters of Creation. Maybe, even, our hearts will beat a bolder rhythm, signaling a readiness to indulge ourselves in some new, creative, and healing ministry our “old selves” could never have taken on. It’s possible, of course, that some of us may come to the end of this Covid Lent journey wounded in unthinkable ways. Those of us who are broken by this season of life might perhaps take courage and comfort in knowing that we are surrounded and loved by our companions (meaning “those who break bread with us”), those who will continue to care for us and pray for us and honor us in ways inspired by God.
Our common Easter celebration will necessarily arrive later than the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (that’s how Easter is dated each year). But be assured that, whatever “hold” is placed on our liturgical lives, the moon will roll around to fullness and the sun will swing its high course as it does year by year. In fact, that Sunday will dawn with Resurrection in its bones - and one by one, by household, by family, by the bonds of friendship, we will see and feel and know that the miracle of New Life is possible even in the tangle of the deepest wilderness. However scattered we may be at the time of that dawning it will still be the dawning of Easter. That dawn will carry with it the same promise it carries every year - that Christ is Risen, that we are invited to rise with him, that in God all things rise up and are lovely and life-giving and a deep, deep joy to behold!
May your rest find you cradled in God’s arms
May your waking be greeted by God’s light
May all that you are and all that you do
Be drenched in God’s endless and unbounded love!