As part of his Easter Sunday homily last year, my friend Mitch—the rector of the Episcopal church I attend—told the story of Gladys, a lifelong pillar of her Congregational church, one of only three churches within a seventy-mile radius in her area of the rural Midwest; the other two were Lutheran and Roman Catholic. One fateful Easter morning, Gladys arrived with her three children in tow, ready for Easter festivities. The homily was given by a young man who, according to Gladys, was “too smart for his own good.” The elements the sermon wove together included spring, new life, and baby rabbits, but nary a word was said about Jesus or the Resurrection. That was Gladys’ last time at the Congregational church; starting the next Sunday she and her family joined forces with the Lutherans down the road, a church where, according to Gladys, “they at least knew how to get Jesus out of the tomb!”
During my first Zoom class after Easter break, I asked my twenty-six students, arranged on my computer screen like an expanded version of Hollywood Squares, how their five-day break was. Since we had several weeks of “in person” classes before we went to distance classes in March, my students and I have developed a good deal of honesty and directness in our interactions, which continues even as we are limited to looking at each other on our computer screens. “It sucked,” said one student. “Didn’t seem like Easter at all,” said another. “Everything’s the same after as it was before—boring, closed down, and penned in.” For others, things were worse; two students in separate classes reported that a grandparent in a care facility had tested positive for Covid-19 since we last met. One of them had died. Overall, even in a group of students at a college sponsored by a Catholic order, Jesus’ emergence from the tomb a few days earlier was, at best, an intellectual proposition. Little resurrection was going on.
No one knows what our individual and collective emergence from the tomb of Covid-19 seclusion and shutdown will be like. But emerge we will, eventually, and it’s worth asking now—pre-emergence—whether we will have learned anything valuable. If resurrection is not just a historical event that we celebrate every Easter, but rather is a continuing, necessary part of both the life of faith and the human condition, how are we going to emerge from the Covid-19 tomb in the weeks and months to come? A walk on my campus a few days ago provided me with some ideas.
Because I live only a half mile from the college campus where I teach and because our campus is beautiful, I frequently find myself headed there on the daily walks that are serving as exercise during coronavirus seclusion, until Rhode Island weather warms up enough for me to ride my bike. Campus is virtually empty, of course, and that could be a serious downer. I miss my colleagues and my students—a lot. I finally had the opportunity this semester to design and teach a course I’ve wanted to teach for more than a decade, it was going beautifully, and then this happened. There are always plenty of reasons to be stressed and negative.
How are we going to emerge from the Covid-19 tomb in the weeks and months to come?
But one recent morning as the sun rose over one of our signature contemporary Gothic buildings, beauty surrounded me. Flowers and leaves were coming out, the birds were singing in every tree, and peace infused the air. The annual April return of life overwhelmed me—as if nature didn’t care if I, or we, have had our lives seriously disrupted. There’s nothing better than nature doing its thing to put our human concerns into perspective. Maybe, just maybe, we actually aren’t the center of the universe after all.
I chose to breathe that peace in rather than choose frustration at teaching opportunities lost because of present circumstances. Remembering what Jesus said about lilies dressed more beautifully than Solomon, sparrows noticed by God, and letting each day’s worries be sufficient instead of focusing on what might happen tomorrow, helps to sustain such choices. None of us can control much, especially nowadays, but we can entirely choose how to be in the middle of even the most challenging circumstances. Those sorts of deliberate choices and intentional actions will be important parts of emerging from the tomb.
In his letter to the Philippians, a letter than one commentator describes as “the epistle of joy and encouragement in the midst of adverse circumstance,” Paul writes that “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere, and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil 4:11).
It’s worth remembering that Paul writes this from a prison cell. It is clear from his letters that Paul is fully human, through and through, with feet of clay up to his eyeballs just like us. But in the midst of stress, pressure, and loss of his freedom, Paul has learned “to be content.” That’s a very heavy lift, but there’s nothing particularly magical or even “holy” about it. The capacity to choose peace, centeredness, beauty, and goodness over stress, distraction, negativity, and strife is within each of us. The more we make those choices, the better we become.
In John’s gospel, we are told that after Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead and Lazarus emerges from his tomb, Jesus instructs those present to “loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44). All of us will need to unwrap and discard our graveclothes over the coming weeks and months as we have the unusual opportunity to truly participate in Easter resurrection. We undoubtedly will find that some of the graveclothes that need to be shed and discarded predate the coronavirus, since often we settle for tombs of our own making.
The capacity to choose peace, centeredness, beauty, and goodness over stress, distraction, negativity, and strife is within each of us.
What has this time of seclusion and forced shutting down taught us? That we regularly fail to recognize what is most important? That those at the bottom of economic and social hierarchies, people often looked down upon and treated as “replaceable” or “dispensable,” have turned out to be the most essential people among us, just as Jesus often told us? That the natural creativity we all discovered and used during seclusion to keep ourselves sane might also be just as useful in crafting new ideas for a better world? Letting the answers to these and similar questions reshape the “new normal” will be part of this year’s resurrection and worth exploring during these fifty days of Easter, through Pentecost, and back to Ordinary Time.