On February 26th, I gathered with a handful of friends and coworkers to take communion, pray, and worship, beginning the season of Lent together, focusing our hearts and minds on the forty (forty-six if you count Sundays) days between then and Resurrection Sunday. The day before, NBC published this article online: “Americans should prepare for coronavirus crisis in U.S., CDC says.” We are now twenty-eight days into Lent and twenty-eight days deeper into the global crisis of COVID-19. Putting my fingers on the keyboard to check the pulse of my social circle on Facebook, the status updates and news articles are a frothy sea of uncertainty and anxiety. CDC forecasting and recommendations have altered the most significant life events of close friends and family, and hope is eclipsed by disappointment. The physical suffering caused by COVID-19–the symptoms, however severely or moderately they manifest–is only one side of the coin; the mental suffering–the fear of becoming sick, the loneliness of isolation, the anxiety for loved ones–is just as existent.
Lent is about suffering, namely, the participation in the suffering of Christ; he knew pain and agony, loneliness and anxiety, and even death. But for a moment, I want to turn our attention to the suffering of the disciples, because for three miserable days, they worried, doubted, and grieved. Even as our world feels deep uncertainty, anxiety, and disappointment, Scripture describes these same feelings in Jesus’s followers in the time between His arrest and resurrection. It is important to note that the empathetic connection between us and the disciples is not due to the same type or degree of traumatic experience but in our responses to those experiences.
There are several remarks in the four gospels that piece together a portrait of the internal distress of the disciples, starting when the high priest’s officers arrested Jesus in Gethsemane: “All of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50). Immediately, fear dispersed the disciples, and they ran away to hide. When Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection, the scripture tells us that “…the doors of the house where the disciples were met were locked for fear of the Jews…” (John 20:19). The disciples were vulnerable. They were known associates of Jesus, and as Peter’s repeated attempts at denial illustrated, they could be recognized by the people who had the power to hurt them. As anxiety drove them away from the Passion to be huddled together in hiding, I imagine that uncertainty crept in as they tried to figure out what to do next. Their leader was gone–dead. They had abandoned everything to follow him, and now they were left wondering what their future would hold. With uncertainty came disappointment. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, the one who would restore the glory and independence of Israel and become their king. Instead, the disciples had watched Jesus be arrested, beaten, and crucified. This could not have been farther from their expectations. When Jesus, disguised as a stranger, met two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he questioned them, and “They stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17). They told him about their recently executed leader, admitting, “’We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’” (Luke 24:21). Hope and expectations devastated, I wonder if their words dripped with sadness and frustration.
This is where we are. We, too, are isolated and anxious; we are uncertain of what will happen to us in the upcoming days and weeks; we are heavy with the disappointment of all the plans we have made and expectations we held. And, like those few men and women who followed the Lord, we see no discernable end or close relief. What can give us–what could give them–hope?
This is where we are…but we’ve been here before. In 2009, the Swine Flu, or H1N1, terrorized in its spread across the globe. In 2008, banks collapsed, and millions of jobs were lost and lives were wrecked as collateral damage. In 2001, the United States witnessed the worst terrorist attack as the World Trade Center collapsed. We are not strangers to crisis, and neither were the disciples. When a storm threatened to break their ship, the disciples cried out to Jesus, believing they were about to die (Matthew 8:23-27). When Lazarus died, his sisters, Mary and Martha, grieved both his death and the likelihood that Jesus could have supernaturally saved him (John 11). And when Jesus was led away and executed, the disciples faced both the actual death of their Lord as well as the threat of their own. As I said at the beginning, our experiences may be incomparably different from those of the disciples, but our responses run parallel. The human experience is riddled with crises big and small, and it is clear that whatever hope we have for the present, it is not in certainty or the absence of anxiety and disappointment. Our hope must dwell in something that exists in spite of those things. Although the disciples had several years of life with Jesus that could have given (and maybe did give) them hope while he was dead, we have an advantage. Between us and the disciples are thousands of years, four gospels, and the witness of millions and millions of individuals, all of which testify to this fact:
Jesus is alive.
For three days, the disciples lived in agony. But on the third day, the women were the first to find what would give them clarity, restore hope, and calm their anxiety when they went to the tomb and found the most unlikely thing in the whole world: Jesus, resurrected. Although he was gone from the earth for three days, Jesus’s Spirit was still very much alive and active. While the disciples were huddled in fear and darkness, God was preparing for the Son to return, to reclaim life from death on earth, and to ascend again to heaven. Life on the other side of the resurrection was no less traumatic for Christ’s followers, but as Acts and the rest of the New Testament illustrate, they endured hardships up to and including their own deaths, all the while anchored to Christ, a confidence that existed alongside their suffering, not in spite of it. His resurrection was the lynchpin for the hope of the disciples, and it is ours as well. If Jesus is alive, we know that suffering is neither eternal nor purposeless, and even as we have weathered previous crisis before, we can and will survive this one and all the ones to come. I don’t know what’s coming next. I don’t know when COVID-19 will run its course. I don’t know what the new normal will be on the other side of sickness, job loss, and days of quarantine. When I reach an end to my knowledge, I trust and hope that he is alive and among us. And he is preparing us as we anchor ourselves to our future hope:
Jesus is coming.
We rehearse this hope-fulfilment every Resurrection Day, and this year will be no different. But what we call Easter is just that–a rehearsal for the return of the King, when sickness and fear will be conquered for the rest of eternity. When we celebrate on April 12th, we may still be in the midst of pandemic. While we participate in the joy and relief of the disciples, we may still be suffering. We may still be bowed down with uncertainty, anxiety, and disappointment. Even as hope seemed far off to the disciples, we don’t see the end of the Coronavirus situation. But as we continue in the season of Lent and look forward to Resurrection Sunday, we know what the disciples learned, that sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning; that the Lord is at work regardless of life’s events or tenor; that at a time when we aren’t expecting it at all, he will take what is dead and raise it to life.
Jesus is alive.
Jesus is coming.
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