This week we remember and re-enact the most important events in the entire history of the world. The coronavirus outbreak has changed some of the ways we can do so this year. But like all worldly things, the change is temporary, while Christ’s Passion – despite historical changes in leaders, regimes, cultures, even the collapse of whole civilizations – remains. And changes everything else.
Widespread suffering and death are – to be sure – serious things. Especially so in the larger perspective of what we are right to call Holy Week. At least that’s the case if we fully recognize what happened during these days.
There’s been a strange drift lately in how Christians remember and talk about Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Death. And it’s not only the maverick theologians. It’s even infected some Christians – Catholics and Protestants – who still believe enough to fill the pews.
We’re told repeatedly: God loves us, Jesus accompanies us – and comforts us – in all our troubles and sufferings. That we should be filled with joy. There’s a good deal right in this – except when it becomes the only way we see things.
We’re Catholic, which means we grasp after the whole. Suffering and death are hard realities; it’s natural that we try not to think about them. But Christianity, particularly during this week, forces us to see that suffering and death exist, and confront us with fundamental questions about life and the way God not only comforts, but has redeemed us.
A lot of modern theology has played down the redemptive meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death – the vertical dimensions. In that view, he suffered His Passion so that, like us, he has been through it all – the horizontal dimension. At the margins, liberation theologians and others often emphasize the political dimension of the Christian story and have even suggested that the Passion was only about an injustice, perpetrated by secular and religious leaders.
It’s striking that some current translations, for example, turn the “two thieves” (lestai) crucified alongside Jesus into “revolutionaries” (in standard Greek lexicons, they’re “robbers,” even “pirates”). So the good thief and bad thief, once easy for us to identify with spiritually, have become, by scholarly massage, political figures. The Coronavirus makes such limited readings of the Christian story appear superficial, impossible.
For modern materialists, and those of us who have been infected by the materialist virus, the current plague presents no existential problem. For them, the entire universe, even prior to the virus, had already been classified as merely a brute physical fact, beautiful sometimes, interesting as we probe deeper and deeper into its secrets, but ultimately meaningless. It grinds us all up without mercy. Such meaning as life has, therefore, can only be whatever we create.
Science and technology – otherwise great and valuable human pursuits – then have to become the savior. And if they cannot in the midst of a pandemic even say for sure how the virus works and why it harms some people and not others, they will in the future. Faith, hope, charity consist in the belief, however implausible, that someday we will bring everything under our control. Eternal life, in this world, may even be in the cards.
This fantasy may offer some solace, to some people, about the future, but for now, we see often older, innocent-seeming people, gasping for breath, like Jesus slumping on the Cross, as their lungs fill with fluid. For them, and for us watching them, there’s only horror and fear that we may slowly suffocate the same way, from meaningless physical processes.
Christian leaders, even at the very highest levels, are quite reluctant these days to talk about “natural evils,” such as the virus, as the result of Original Sin. Since even many Christians haven’t been taught basic Biblical truths for decades, it’s likely few would understand if they did. But in Genesis, evil and death come from sin, even natural evils like plagues. And therefore Christ is not only our Comforter. His Death and Resurrection, by repairing what sin produced – separation from God and discord with the rest of Creation – which we, by ourselves, could not do, give the mystery of evil real meaning.
Other religions have their ways of dealing with suffering and death. Hinduism seems to take it as just the way things are. And besides there’s reincarnation. As Emerson famously wrote in “Brahma”:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Buddhism regards suffering and death, and the entire world itself, as an illusion.
For Christianity, the world, which includes our sufferings and death, is quite real. Thus, St. John Henry Newman:
if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
He continues: “And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary – or what is called miraculous.” (Apologia, Ch.5)
The miraculous includes both the Crucifixion, when Christ told us his blood would be poured out for “the forgiveness of sins.” But also the sacraments, the concrete acts that communicate God’s grace to us, which is why we feel their lack so acutely at this moment.
This is Christian reasoning, realistic reasoning, rooted in the realities we remember and participate in this week. Given our current challenges, may those Easter realities grow among us with power and strength far greater than the body counts we will see in coming days.
*Image: The Savior (‘El Salvador’) by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), c. 1610 [El Greco Museum, Toledo, Spain]