Dispatches from the present
It was the third week of Lent when Chicago’s stay-at-home order went into effect last year, the day after the solemnity of St. Joseph. It was more than a month after America’s first human-to-human transfer had been confirmed in Chicago, and against the recurring advice of angels—“be not afraid”—my wife and I had been watching the news of the unfolding pandemic in white-knuckle anxiety. I’d given up Twitter for Lent, but got sucked back in as it became the most dependable source of information about the spread of the virus around the world. My wife and I had prepared early—the cabinets in our apartment had been topped with cans of tuna and boxes of shelf-stable soup since mid-February; the fifty pounds of flour and twenty pounds of rice arrived in early March—and took off work just before the rest of the country shut down. I told friends that the entire world was being forced into Lenten penitence. I was only half joking.
For those of us whose lives unfold in constant engagement with a certain ancient library of prophetic books, the Biblical tenor of the pandemic’s onset was undeniable. The virus began to gain traction on American soil in the period leading up to Passover, the yearly Jewish memorial of plague and pestilence befalling the pharaoh and the people of ancient Egypt. The pandemic’s global reach likewise appeared as a Babel parable for the globalized world, a story of human hubris collapsing into suffering and catastrophe. Watching all of reality become submerged in the chaos and drama of scripture befit the Lenten season in the most horrifying way possible.
But unlike Lent, the pandemic didn’t end on Easter morning. Our memorial of Christ’s resurrection, usually commemorated in the joyful company of others, was broadcast into living rooms across America via livestream. My wife and I quickly learned that genuflecting before a laptop is a poor substitute for doing the same before an altar, and after a few weeks we stopped trying to convince ourselves that Zoom church was worth the effort. And as Easter passed, we watched as our period of private, temporary renunciation folded into a public and indefinite one.
Lenten penitence often creates a sense of solidarity among Christians: each one’s fast may be one’s own, “seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret,” but while I might not know what my fellow is struggling with, I know she struggles just as I do and neither of us does so alone. And when we return to our chocolate, alcohol, social media, or whatever quasi-vice we’d foresworn for the last forty days and nights, we do so in a spirit of thanksgiving that, while celebratory, is nonetheless aware of the blood shed to heal “the error bred in the bone.” The intensity of Lent is preparation for comprehending the atonement given to us, and the celebration that follows allows us to appreciate the difficulty of the now-completed fast. The beauty of the Christian drama lies in this insoluble marriage of victory and defeat, of the low giving way to the high: the Passion and Resurrection are meaningless without one another; St. John’s light can be seen only in the darkness in which it shines.
The long Lent of lockdown, however, has been an isolated and atomizing affair, with no triumphant ending yet in sight. The mantra of “social distancing” has been interpreted to mean that any human-to-human contact is morally impermissible, subject to censure and shame. Mitigation strategies have tended to heap responsibility onto individuals (you’re required to wear a mask, but you have to find or make it yourself; if you’re looking to get vaccinated, have fun refreshing a web page for two hours) while downplaying the responsibility of the government and its attendant bureaucracies for the ineptitude of their early response.
Amid all this darkness, one year later, we find ourselves in another season of Lent. Another forty days of fasting (or trying to, at least); another forty days of thinking about how when the creator and sustainer of the universe took on human form and came to live with us, we nailed him to a wooden beam. It has been arduous. But there’s a lot less fear this time around, and a lot less grocery hoarding, as we’ve grown accustomed to pandemic life (the angels it seems, were onto something). Church capacity is limited, but we’re able to be there and are glad for it. And on Maundy Thursday, the first major service of Holy Week, I found myself in my at-capacity parish, kneeling—however distantly—among gathered friends and strangers, listening to a real, not-recorded human voice chant the Psalms for the first time in over a year. The reality of it all vibrated in my bones.
After mass, I walked out into the cold April night. Solitary walkers passed, faces half-obscured, and disappeared into the night; on the sidewalk face masks lay discarded like jellyfish stranded on a beach—the gloom again descending. But perhaps hope is a discipline, and Lent is training in how to “keep awake,” as Jesus tells his disciples, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” My thoughts turned to the days to come: Easter’s promise of redemption, the onset of summer, the eventual end to this plague. Yes, there’s darkness, and the world is full of it. But then, miraculously, there’s light.
Art credit: Hieronymous Bosch, “St. John in the Wilderness.”