Lent During a Pandemic

Lent During a Pandemic March 16, 2020

I hesitate to post anything related to the pandemic, especially while we are yet in the thick of what – from everything I can tell – is just the beginning of the coronavirus winter. In a time when there are so many hot takes, so much (mis/)information, so many opportunists benefitting from the chaos, the last thing I want to do is contribute to the clamor.

At the same time, I have deeply appreciated some of the things I have read, including the thoughtful and wise counsel from Andy Crouch and Esau McCaulley among others and I hope this post might also be found useful. Many helpful pieces have been written about what individuals and organizations ought to do to minimize transmission and to love one’s neighbor (e.g., wash hands, social distancing, etc.). At the risk of merely adding to the noise, I offer some reflections on the remarkable timing of this unprecedented experience (at least in our time) of a pandemic within this season of the church year. In the hope that the timing is not lost on us, I offer some thoughts on living through a pandemic during Lent.

I think it’s important to say at the outset that the coronavirus poses very real risks, especially to the most vulnerable among us. Many people are going to die because of COVID-19. Without minimizing these stark realities, I nevertheless suggest we ought to consider the very real opportunities this pandemic offers. I hesitate to say that this time is a gift – but, in a sense, it is, and even must be because all time is a gift. If we fail to think rightly about this season, we run the risk of wasting this pandemic and the opportunity it offers us to become more human together.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”

With these harrowing words, a priest marks the sign of the cross in ash upon the forehead of penitent saints. This hallowed liturgical rite marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter. This penitential season is characterized by solemnity and sobriety, by prayer and fasting, by acts of mercy. In their wisdom, the saints of old instituted this season in the life of the Church because they knew humans in every age needed it. We need to remember our desperate need for God. This is the greatest need of every human being: rescue from death, eternal life, available only through communion with the Living God.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words were spoken to me. And, as a priest, I had the terrible privilege of speaking these words to brothers and sisters a few short weeks ago. As I ashed their heads, I looked those dear men, women, and children in their eyes and told them they were going to die.

When I did this, I am sure I believed it. But the weight of the reality of mortality did not long burden my thoughts. The load quickly lifted. The truth was theoretical. It was real but it was a truth in the future.

Perhaps the most obvious comment on the timing of a pandemic during Lent is the possibility and reality of death is far less theoretical. We really are all going to die. It’s not just a line from a Sufjan Stevens’ song. Maybe the virus will lay siege to my lungs? If it’s not pneumonia that steals my final breath, it will be something else.

The outbreak of the coronavirus across the globe provides a painfully palpable opportunity to remember our common mortality. No matter what candle Gwyneth tries to sell you, you cannot buy your way out of your human weakness. The truth is that all ultimate claims to bodily safety and security are an illusion. To paraphrase a poem by Mary Oliver: everything always dies at last and too soon. This was true before the virus jumped from an animal into a human host. It will be true after COVID-19 is as much a part of our lives as the common flu.

Some things haven’t changed. You are still far more likely to die while driving your car to the grocery store than you are after contracting COVID-19 from the nice lady while selecting only the avocados with just the right level of softness. James Baldwin puts it powerfully: “Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true for everybody.” What has happened is this: safety has always been an illusion but the pandemic has removed the veil. This is an essential Lenten truth, brought home, made real by the virus.

If you’re like me, coming to terms with this has been hard and confusing. The Lenten lesson is found by paying attention to what this is doing to you and in you. Pay attention to the state of your heart, to where you mind goes, and to what you are doing. Are you fearful? Are you spending your waking moments obsessing over the latest bad news? Are you crisis-buying toilet paper? Are you praying? Are you savoring whatever human connection is afforded you this day? Are you seeking to love your neighbor as yourself?

Lent is here for us to honestly answer these questions before God. Lent is here for us to repent and trust.

“It tolls for thee”

In addition to the reminder that we are all going to die, the pandemic is doing another very Lenten thing. It is functioning as a great leveler. In the same way that Lent invites every human being to remember her common plight, so it is with the pandemic. We’re in this together. Nobody is immune. It is infecting the poorest and the most powerful in the world. The way I want to talk about this is through the lens of solidarity.

The pandemic is creating a remarkable solidarity. Perhaps this is speaking too soon. The pandemic has the potential to create a remarkable solidarity, if we embrace the opportunity. There is not a lot to compare it to but it is reminiscent of 9/11 in America except it is far more unifying. Unlike the September 11 attacks, which were the result of a violent clash of cultures, the violence being done to our bodies by COVID-19 is not motivated by ideology.

The coronavirus does not discriminate. This is not a Chinese disease. It is not an Iranian disease, or an Italian disease. It is a inhuman disease wreaking havoc on human bodies with no regard for socio-cultural distinction. In other words, we are all in the same boat. In a matter of days, the decisions each of us makes has very real implications for people across the globe.

In the 17th century, John Donne wrote a meditation on death in the throes of his own severe sickness. Describing all humanity as being united in its provenance from God: “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume,” Donne paints a powerful picture of human solidarity. When a child is baptized, that concerns me. When a man is buried that concerns me. The meditation is best known for the following section where he compares humanity to a great landmass. Donne rejects the notion that any individual can be an island, isolated and alone. When one person dies, ground is lost. A clod of earth is eroded by the sea. Every person’s death diminishes every person and all of humanity because every person is part of the whole. I’ll end with Donne’s own words, which serve as a powerful Lenten reminder of our human solidarity as we weather the pandemic together:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

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