A pastor’s message during the sheltering mandate
The Valley Catholic – April 7, 2020

“Teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart”
 – Psalm 90:12

Recently someone sent me a poem associated with #PrayforyourPastor:

Your Pastor has never pastored a church through a pandemic before.
When he opens (his church), people are going to say he should have closed.
When he closes, people are going to say he should have opened.
When he does not shake hands, people are going to say he needs faith.
When he shakes hands, people are going to say he’s foolish.
He’s going to make some difficult decisions to protect the flock
considering everything from your spiritual growth to legal liabilities
that you aren’t even thinking about…  – Author unknown.

Pastors are not the only ones facing the incredible challenges during this Coronavirus pandemic.  Virtually every person, family, community, city, nation, and the entire world, is affected on different levels. Doctors, nurses, first responders continue their mission while even they themselves are especially vulnerable to the viral infection.

A post on Instagram on March 23 is touching: “The sad thing for suspected COVID-19 patients is they have to die alone, catching their last breath alone.” This is because their families are not allowed to be near their deathbed. Priests likewise are kept at a distance and can only pray for them outside their isolation.

This stealth virus can even affect babies who are not yet born. Many pregnant women now have to give birth alone, as hospitals restrict visitors during the pandemic. Others chose to give birth at their own homes, as they are anxious about the impact of the virus.

Christ Jesus Himself endured excruciating pain, abject humiliation, and violent death. In the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus suffered alone. The crowd turned against Him. His close friends betrayed or abandoned Him. Everything was out of control. The world turned upside down. On the Cross, in the eerie darkness of nature, He even cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

His cry on the Cross shows us that Jesus, the Son of God, is also the Son of Man, truly human.  “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering (St. Augustine).” It reflects the anguished cry of many people whose faith is tested in their suffering.  It reflects the collective cry of humanity in crises, disasters, wars, violence, pandemics.

It was a culmination of His entire life spent in solidarity with other suffering human beings.  He Himself took risks in entering this uncertain world, dared to welcome the marginalized, reached out to the untouchable.

Among the untouchable were lepers; according to the Law of Moses, healthy persons were rendered ritually unclean and excluded from the community for touching a leper.  The purpose of this law was to quarantine the unclean person.  When they had to go out from their isolated place, lepers were required to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others to keep a distance (similar to today’s “social – or physical – distancing”).

Yet Jesus healed a leper by touching him, although His touch was unnecessary (Matthew 8:2-4).  He healed the leper, and more importantly, showed him that he was not alone, even in isolation and marginalization. His physical outreach, even without the physical healing, already healed the leper on the emotional and deeper level.

What Jesus painfully uttered on the Cross was the beginning of Psalm 22.  It’s one of more than 50 psalms under the lamentation category in the Book of Psalms, a Jewish national repertoire of 150 hymns.  Psalm 22 first cries out to God, then laments for the suffering, speaks of enemies who mocked the psalmist for his fidelity to God, but concludes in praising God, who heard and responded to the cry of the afflicted. This psalm is a hymn expressing both helplessness and trust in God and in his plan.

In the dark valley of life, it helps to see the big picture and to take the long view. Maria von Trapp (1905-1987), the real-life person whose story inspired the popular musical, “The Sound of Music,” wrote: “It will be very interesting one day to follow the pattern of our life as it is spread out like a beautiful tapestry… In looking back we can discover how a red thread goes through the pattern of our life: the Will of God.”

The tapestry of Jesus’ life was not finished on the Cross or the Tomb on Good Friday. It culminated in his Resurrection, when he passed over to the fullness of life on Easter morning. In the Gospel according to Saint John, Jesus does not pray to be spared of suffering and death, but sees it as the very purpose for His coming into the world: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?”

The Gospel of John views both the Death and Resurrection of Jesus as His Hour of Glorification. That is why at every Mass we celebrate both the Lord’s Death and His Resurrection: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again.”

In this Week of Our Salvation (the Eastern Church’s term for Holy Week), let us reflect on Jesus’ tapestry of life, the tapestry of our own individual lives, and the tapestry of the history of humanity.  May we see the red thread that goes through the tapestry of life and history: God’s loving care for us, God’s closeness to us, most especially when we feel alone.

Illustrated image: Jesus is alone in the Last Supper sculpture at the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, TX