Easter victory in a time of pandemic

| Jonathan Liedl | April 8, 2020 | 0 Comments

iStock/RomoloTavani

O death, where is thy victory?

O death, where is thy sting?

These words from St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians become our anthem during the Easter season, when we rejoice in Christ’s triumph over death.

But at a time of year when we typically gather joyfully in our parishes to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, many of us find ourselves confined to our homes without physical access to the sacraments and our communities. At a time when we celebrate the gift of salvation and newness of life, many across the world are facing serious threats to their health, families and livelihood as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

It may soon be Easter, but it can sure seem like death — and its entourage of suffering, sorrow and separation — has a whole lot of sting left.

If Christ is victorious and we are an Easter people, why does death and its ilk still hold such sway in our world? Why is a virus allowed to dictate the terms of how we live, encumbering us, harming us and hemming us in? Where is the fruit of Christ’s victory today, amid this pandemic? Or will we only partake of it at some distant and disconnected eschaton, like a reward after an ordeal that is otherwise pointless?

It’s in the midst of a crisis such as this that we are graciously forced to look anew at the radical Christian claim that death has been defeated. Other religious outlooks, from Buddhism to stoicism, don’t dare be so bold. They see this world as a never-ending cycle of death and life, life and death, ultimately meaningless, and merely offer an opportunity to “escape” it all. The “salvation” they offer is far more chastened, and, in light of what’s going on in the world today, might even seem more “reasonable.”

But Christianity is different. God does not merely offer us an escape from death and suffering by simply wiping all the world — including us — away. He offers us a radical fulfilment by becoming one of us, taking all that we are — including our wounded nature, our frailty, even our mortality — and transforming it, giving and revealing in it all a meaning and an orientation that could previously not be seen.

Through his death and resurrection, Christ swallows death whole, but he doesn’t merely annihilate it. Instead, he wrests death from the hands of the devil and bends it to his life-giving purposes. Death is still a reality, but it is no longer a permanent fixture. In fact, to the ultimate embarrassment of Satan, what was once an eternal holding cell of unfulfillment now serves as the gate to blissful life and communion with God forever and ever.

All things, all human experiences and events, then, are repurposed by Christ for our good. As the French theologian Henri DeLubac put it, in Christianity salvation takes a historical form: “the history of the penetration of humanity by Christ.” All of time, then, the occurrences and events of our lives and human history, little and small, are not enemies and obstacles to our fulfilment, but are precisely the means through which God chooses to bring it about. “Of necessity,” DeLubac says, “we must find a foothold in time if we are to rise to eternity; we must use time.”

We must use time. That includes this present moment, this current crisis. We must not deny the reality and the gravity of this pandemic, the sorrow of death, the seriousness of disruption and our duty to be good stewards of our health (and the health of others), nor can we allow it to thrust us into a self-survival mode that closes us off to God and others. Hands that cling to earthly life like an idol, like our only possession, are incapable of receiving whatever the Lord might be trying to give us in these moments.

In his work “Heart of the World,” Hans Urs Von Balthasar portrays time as a river of Divine Providence. Our one task, he says, is to follow where this river flows, even to become this river, in whatever form it takes, be it a gentle brook or a thundering waterfall. Standing on the shore or trying to dam the river with rocks will prevent us from being formed by Time, “the grand school of love.”

“We grow only by being thrust into transiency,” says Von Balthasar. “We cannot ripen, we cannot become rich in any way other than by an uninterrupted renunciation that occurs hour by hour.” This renunciation is not a denial of our nature or our freedom, but of our tendencies for control. It is a renunciation that returns us to our primary posture of trust and dependency before the Lord.

What can give us the courage to live like this, in the face of such uncertainty? One avenue might be by looking to our brothers and sisters who are already witnesses to the Easter victory in this present time.

I am grateful to have seen these witnesses to Christ’s victory, these living lessons of the school of love, right here in our archdiocesan community: A dear friend (one of the greatest hostesses and most social people I know), who gave up her plans for a grand and well-attended wedding in order to not postpone embracing her vocation; another friend who had the courage to propose to his girlfriend in the midst of this time of uncertainty; and countless others who are creatively working within our present circumstances to share the love of Christ.

This will not be a normal Easter. But in a paradoxical way, the darkness of our current times allows the light of Christ’s victory to shine forth even more visibly and powerfully in the lives of those who embrace him by embracing the circumstances he has given us. They show us that death, though present, has lost its enduring sting, and that the Easter victory of Christ is not only an event in the past or a condition yet to come, but a reality we are invited to live today.

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Beginning this month his column, To Home From Rome, will appear under the title Already/Not Yet.

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