Recently, I underwent a minor medical procedure at the end of which the doctor asked if I was feeling any pain. I indicated by way of response that what I was feeling was a mere discomfort because I have seen human pain and I could not bestow such a label to my little discomfort. He accepted my response but nonetheless offered me a prescription for pain medication that would take me through a day or two as things return to normal. I accepted the prescription which sat in my car for several days and was finally discarded as I awaited “the discomfort” to subside.
I would not present myself as any paragon of virtue in this regard but, I cannot in this context of the worldwide novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic be oblivious to the deep pain which tens of thousands have been experiencing since the outbreak of this virus in places like Italy, Spain, and the State of New York, where the suffering, pain and death vastly outstrip the ability of the human and material resources to alleviate the situation, even as the infection rate moves toward some kind of peak. The sheer physical pain which the virus inflicts on the body of the worse affected; the separation of the infected from all contact with family, and which in many instances leads to death without loved ones around; the burial of those who succumb without even family members to share in that moment of grief and separation; the distress which health workers experience as they become victims of the virus or watch their colleagues die in a self-sacrificial commitment to care for the infected; all speak of pain primarily at a physical level and beyond.
In all contexts affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, such as our own, the numbers may be few compared to these extreme situations but, we still have to deal with the victims of the infection, the dislocation which has resulted in job and income loss for many, as well as the serious impact which this pandemic is causing and will continue to cause even after its impact recedes. There is a general sense of anxiety and uncertainty as each one of us remains a potential victim of this pandemic and wonder what this could mean for our ability to move on with our lives. The dislocation caused by the closure of schools, working from home for those employed in non-essential sectors, the drastic change with the loss of income for some in service-related or self-employment, the confinement of the vulnerable elderly to their homes, and the closure of churches and congregational worship in conformity to restrictions on public gatherings, have been disorienting, depressing and a source of despair for many, notwithstanding the jokes which some circulate on social media, or the few who take public health releases lightly.
Christians cannot be oblivious to the fact that this pandemic is impacting our nation and our life at a time when our faith tradition calls us to recall and focus on the experience of human suffering and death when the experience of the most cruel means by which to inflict suffering and death on an individual, crucifixion, abandonment, isolation and despair met at the cross in Jerusalem. It was not a viral pandemic, but the coming together of the evil of human sin, a misguided and closed religious establishment, and political power which pursued the expedient and pragmatic route to retention of power even in face of innocence, which led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
And yet, when all these forces had done the worse that they could and declared that death had reigned, the God of heaven and earth acted, making it evident that there is no situation of apparent death and futility that is beyond the life-infusing power of God. One of the Old Testament reading options for Easter Day is from Jeremiah 31 and which speaks of Jeremiah’s experience of communicating hopeful words to a people who were experiencing decline, destruction, death and exile. From the people’s perspective, there was nothing of light and hope in their seemingly hopeless and despairing situation. Yet, Jeremiah proclaims to his people that in the face of the death of all expectations, hopes and dreams, God will bring the nation back together, and they shall be his people once more. What he makes evident for us is that there is no expression of death and destruction in which God cannot find and give expression to life.
While it is true that the Government has been making budgetary provisions to offset some of the fallout from the pandemic, and to make projections regarding what it will take to get the nation back to a state of normality, many in the nation are not embracing that future projection as they are embedded in the anxieties of the moment, the images of death, and all of the uncertainty which attends thoughts of tomorrow. The message which the people of God have understood, and which is affirmed most profoundly at Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that death, anxiety and despairing laded situations do not hold the last word for the people of the living God. As in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, life as the unpredictable movement of the spirit rises and infuses even the dead bones. One commentator sum up the significance of Easter and the resurrection as manifestations of the very nature and way of God’s operation in the world in this way:
“Easter is about the absurd announcement that there is not death so dead that God cannot find life in it… Easter is about the sort of God we worship, a God who will always have the last laugh, even in the face of the old dog, death.”
May the life-declaring message of Easter ring afresh in your heart and life as we journey through this worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
The Most Rev. Howard Gregory
Archbishop of the West Indies
Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands