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Easter, celebrated on this spring day by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, tells of an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus. It is a story of radical hope and redemption, overcoming death with the brightness of new life.
So, during a global pandemic, does it, can it, apply broadly to humankind?
Will we emerge as more generous, more caring of others, more aware of the elderly, marginalized and shut-ins, and more sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed, the hungry, the helpless? Will we show greater respect to nurses, doctors, firefighters and police officers? Will we continue our newfound appreciation for workers who stock stores, pick tomatoes and make soap? And what about teachers who educate and tend to our children and delivery people who bring food and medicine to our doorsteps? Will we reevaluate what we used to think were “essential” services? Will we now treasure the time we have with our families, even when we’re not sequestered and forced to connect only virtually?
Or will we, as one Utah Catholic priest feared last week, return “to being selfish”?
No predicting, of course.
“We come out of suffering either better or worse than before. Rarely are we the same,” explains the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic columnist for Religion News Service. “Suffering does not magically make us better. It can make us more selfish, especially if no one comes to our assistance. We can feel that if we don’t look out for ourselves, no one will, so we fight over toilet paper.”
But it can also make people more compassionate and understanding, Reese writes in an email. “We know what others are going through and we therefore want to help. We can also be grateful for the help we receive from others.”
Everyone will meet suffering and death, he says. “The cross is God’s expression of love by joining us in our suffering. The Resurrection is his and our victory over suffering and death.”
For his part, Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, remains optimistic about the outcome of the outbreak and offers a challenge for a sweeter future.
“When we have conquered this — and we will — may we be equally committed to freeing the world from the virus of hunger and freeing neighborhoods and nations from the virus of poverty,” Holland told his listeners at the faith’s April General Conference. “May we hope for schools where students are taught — not terrified they will be shot — and for the gift of personal dignity for every child of God, unmarred by any form of racial, ethnic or religious prejudice.”
Revised lives and politics
Christy Karras, a freelance writer and editor in Seattle (and a former Salt Lake Tribune staffer), contracted the coronavirus in late February from a small gathering of friends and was down with it for a week or more.
It has definitely changed Karras, who is not particularly religious.
“I'm more interested than ever in volunteer work. It used to be that I'd do a one-off project now and then, and it was mostly outdoorsy stuff like community gardening or trail clearing.” Maybe it’s “the enforced distance from other people right now,” she says, “but I can’t wait to work in a group volunteer setting, in more people-focused areas” — like staffing a food bank.
She is also determined to provide her antibodies to researchers.
“I'd never donated blood before,” Karras says. “Now that this experience has made me think about using my blood to help other people, I think I'll keep donating.”
Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s lone Democrat in Congress, had a lengthy bout with the coronavirus that included a weeklong hospital stay.
He believes the response to this epidemic may help heal some of the country’s partisan tensions.
“It seems like people, in Congress and in our community, are much more in touch with our humanity and how we are all in this together,” McAdams says in a text message. “When I was sick, so many people reached out to tell me they were praying for my recovery and that really lifted me up.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California called McAdams’ wife while he was in the hospital “to convey his love and well wishes,” the congressman writes. “I have struck up a friendship texting back and forth with Republican Mario Diaz-Balart [of Florida], the other member of Congress who was diagnosed COVID-19 positive the same day as me.”
So many families face “sobering and incredible health and financial hardships,” he says. “I can’t help but feel a greater love and compassion for others. It seems like we’ve gotten better at the ability to have our disagreements and differences and still care about the health and financial well-being of each other.”
McAdams knows such newfound empathy “is not going to solve all of the dysfunction in Congress or in society, but I think in some ways this crisis has changed us for the better.”
“I hope," he adds optimistically, "it lasts.”
A dividing line
To the Rev. Oscar Moses, new pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, “God has strategically allowed this to happen to get the attention of the church.”
At the end of the epidemic, Christians will be “either on the side of the Lord or the side of the world,” Moses says. “The Bible says there will be a great falling away, that the church will get smaller and smaller but stronger as it evangelizes the gospel.”
Moses sees similarities between adherents meeting in homes now because of social distancing and in first-century Christians.
“When this is over, people will gravitate back to the church for a while — as they did after 9/11, and then fall away again,” he says, “but the true Christians are sensitive to what God is doing for such a time as this.”
They, he says, will stay steadfast “through this pilgrimage of faith … toward eternity.”
Living through the end
COVID-19 is “a global wake-up call,” writes Latter-day Saint writer and philosophy professor Adam Miller. “Our lives, ecologies, and economies are profoundly fragile and this world (swiftly and dramatically or slowly but surely) is already and continually passing away.”
Miller, who teaches at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, has been studying the prophet Mormon, a central figure in the faith’s signature text, in the context of “coming climate catastrophes already baked into our global future.”
Mormon, known to church members, was the editor/historian who abridged the Book of Mormon from larger narratives and was one of the last leaders of a righteous tribe that was wiped out by enemies.
Mormon presents a “case study in apocalyptic discipleship,” Miller says. “It looks like taking up the hard work of willingly sacrificing all things in a world where, in one way or another, everyone is already guaranteed to lose all things.”
So what, he asks, does Christian discipleship look like “when you are not just waiting for the end of the world but actually living through it?”
Miller says Mormon provides an example of what to do.
“He lived a life of integrity and consecrated Christian service,” the professor says. “He sacrificed everything for his people — even as that sacrifice utterly failed to save his own people from extinction and the world as he knew it from annihilation.”
But the scriptural figure “didn’t let that sense of powerlessness overwhelm him,” Miller says. “He didn’t let his hopelessness undercut his commitment to action. Rather, bending those losses to Christian ends, he let those losses purify his actions and his motivations.”
Indeed, Mormon “let those losses pare his life down to the bare essentials,” the writer says, “and ground him in the God he loved.”
‘Wink of an eye'
One of the lessons of this virus, says Bishop Scott Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, is that circumstances can “change drastically in the wink of an eye.”
Hayashi’s own life was altered permanently when he was shot during a holdup at age 19.
“It is hubris to think we can know what will happen next week,” he says, “let alone in the distant future.”
While quarantined for being exposed to a person who tested positive for the coronavirus, the bishop was looking at older movies, TV shows and personal photos that all show crowds of people together.
It almost seems like a distant memory, Hayashi jokes, then he quotes Joni Mitchell’s lyric:
“Don’t it always seem to go.
“That you don’t know what you’ve got.
“Till it’s gone?”
One of the questions the bishop will ask on Easter is this: “Is the resurrection for those who have died or is it also for the living?
“Where in my life do I need resurrection?” he adds. "What has died and needs to be brought back to life and what in me needs to be made new?”
He hopes society will come out of this isolation, disease and death with a deeper commitment to grasping the belief that all people are created in the image of God.
Hayashi points, for instance, to those “essential workers” who are so often undervalued and underpaid. “We need to accord them greater dignity than we have.”
Yes, writes Christianity Today columnist Timothy Dalrymple, “the resurrection is not canceled.”
God is always “in the business of bringing life out of death,” he writes. “Jesus emerged from the tomb so that we can do the same — on Easter and every other day. There is nothing in all the world that could have stopped the resurrection of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, and there is nothing that can stop it today.”
As for building a better tomorrow, that, it seems, is up to us.