Over the next days and weeks, people of faith will have to be flexible and creative because COVID-19 has upended religious celebrations.
Passover, Easter and Ramadan will have to be observed virtually in the home, making use of online streaming of religious services. FaceTime, Skype or Zoom will be useful in exchanging greetings in lieu of traditional family gatherings and feasts.
Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday) is my favourite week of the year. While I will miss participating in community celebrations, I’m determined to make the week as spiritually nourishing as possible.
The historical events of Holy Week and the religious beliefs arising from those events are particularly relevant to the human condition and experience. I’ve been reflecting on the relevance of Easter in light of the global pandemic.
My reflection begins with the word ‘ponder.’ In the Gospel of Luke, ‘ponder’ describes Mary’s response to words and events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Mary, Luke says, “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
‘Ponder’ is used elsewhere in the scriptures, most commonly in the Psalms. The psalmist ponders God’s mighty deeds, and God’s law, for example. While ‘ponder’ is generally defined as to consider carefully, or to weight, it may also mean to hold things in tension.
In physics, tension, very simply put, is a pulling force that stretches something. Thought of in this way, pondering something can stretch our understanding. It may reveal truths that were previously hidden from us.
Consider the following illustration from an Easter decades ago when my children were small. Along with their cousins, the children were at their grandparents home for the annual outdoor Easter egg hunt. Their grandfather had written a riddle; the solution to the riddle would reveal the spot where he’d hidden a treasure of golden chocolate coins.
The children were gathered around, listening as he read out the riddle. He had barely finished when all but my daughter ran off, helter-skelter, running aimlessly from place to place looking for the treasure. My daughter stood stock still, pondering her grandfather’s words.
When she’d figured out the answer, she moved towards the location of the treasure. One of her older cousins observed her movement, and being bigger and faster, he beat her to the treasure, happily holding it aloft proclaiming his success. (There was no mens rea intended and the treasure, as usual, was shared out between the cousins.)
The treasure hunt had created competition among the cousins. Who would figure out the riddle first? Who would find it and be the winner?
Only one child was able to hold in tension the elements required to solve the riddle with the desire to be the winner. She was able to sit with the mystery of the riddle and to unravel its meaning.
Tension figures prominently in the dawn of the first Easter morning. In John”s Gospel, Mary of Magdala goes early to the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. She finds it empty, the body gone.
Fearing that someone has stolen the corpse, she runs to find Peter. Mary, Peter and another disciple run back to the tomb. The two male disciples enter the tomb, see the burial cloths and run off, leaving Mary alone.
Mary, however, sits with and in the emptiness of that moment. She holds her grief, fear and confusion in tension with hope, possibly remembering and understanding for the first time the mysterious words of Jesus, who said he would rise on the third day.
There are moments in life when, like Mary, we sit in the tomb. The world is experiencing one of those moments. During this time of pandemic, uncertainty, constant change, anxiety, isolation and loss have become our universal companions.
Our governments are asking us to faithfully adhere to social-distancing, hand washing and cough etiquette. We must adapt as the ground beneath our feet shifts and while science tries to unravel the mystery of this disease.
With no end in sight, we must hold in tension the present reality with the knowledge that this too will pass. Like a little girl puzzling out a riddle in hopes of finding a treasure, or like Mary Magdala sitting with the mystery of an empty tomb, we can hope for a metaphorical resurrection, a rebirth that could positively change the manner in which we live.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.