My heart sank, weeks ago, when I realized that most of Lent would be devoid of public liturgies and church attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was nothing compared to the blow a few days later when it became clear that the cessation of public liturgies and continuation of shelter in place orders would continue through Holy Week and Easter as well.
I fully support both measures — cancellation of public liturgies and sheltering in place, and believe that even in those places where it is permitted by law, for churches to gather during this public health crisis is not only irresponsible, but damaging to our witness to the gospel: a cause of reproach. Nevertheless, these decisions lead to a sense of real loss.
The paschal mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the beating heart of the church’s existence, and our liturgical participation in this mystery from Sunday to Sunday, and especially during the three holy days of the paschal Triduum are the very lifeblood of so many Christians and churches.
This year, rather than gather in the deathly darkness and silence of Holy Saturday, only to have that dark shattered by the new fire and the light of Christ, rather than see neophytes born anew into a living hope through water and the Holy Spirit, rather than breaking our fast on the most precious body and blood of the risen Lord, we have sat in varying degrees of isolation, in a rather different deathly darkness, as the rising tide of coronavirus deaths has continued its seemingly-inexorable upward climb and realized that no small number of American politicians and public figures have judged this to be an acceptable sacrifice in our national cult of the Almighty Dollar.
We have, of course, mitigated this isolation, through digitally mediated community and renewals of the domestic church, adapting the liturgy as our circumstances, and (in most cases, at least) the rubrics of the prayer book and canons of the church have allowed. But the fact remains: for most of us, at least, it feels like we are living in an extended Lent, rather than in the light of Easter. Some, recognizing this, have even postponed their Easter celebrations until such time as the plague has passed and public Masses are once again advisable.
Theological lessons to be learned abound here, many of them concentrated in the area of our sacramental theology and our seeming incapacity to endure a protracted eucharistic fast. (I say this as one with a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.) For now, though, one theological lesson in particular seems especially worthy of our attention. Here we are in Easter, yet it feels more like an extended Holy Saturday. Death seems regnant. Joy seems out of place. In the midst of life we are in death (BCP, 492).
And yet, it is Easter, Christ is risen, whether we feel it or not.
Death has been defeated, even as it continues to proceed, seemingly unchecked, through our populace.
With the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eschatological day has dawned. He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the anticipation in the midst of history of the general resurrection that will occur at the end of history.
We do not yet see the full and final defeat of death because history continues. But we do see Jesus and in him we are assured of history’s outcome, because it has already occurred.
And this is true every Easter, including those where we do not feel this dissonance between the church’s calendar and our lives.
Every Easter, someone is mourning. Every Easter, for someone, at least, death seems to continue undefeated and unopposed. Every Easter, there are Christians for whom sacramental communion in Christ’s body and blood is not possible. Even in the pandemic, no trial has overtaken us that is not common to all humanity (1 Cor 10:13). Even in the pandemic, Jesus is the faithful, risen Lord.
Our experience of an Easter that so clearly unfolds in the midst of death, then, ought to direct our hearts and minds upward in recognition that, so long as history continues, we are not yet home. And, again, this is true every other Easter as well; we’ve just not noticed it.
Our heartache beckons us to that true homeland where all will be set right, and whose content is not other than we celebrate, however haltingly, here and now: Christ’s victory over death.
Christ has been raised from the dead, *
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since by a man came death, *
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, *
so in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.
Alleluia. The Lord is Risen indeed: Come, let us adore him. Alleluia. (BCP, 83, 81)
Eugene R. Schlesinger is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.