Last week, the newspaper received its first obituary for a death related to COVID-19. The notice came through my email and I clicked to open the attached picture. I saw the face of a woman — her eyes creased with a smile. She wore dangly earrings and a sparkling pink headband. She liked swimming, dogs and her family, the email said. I closed my computer and cried.
My sister-in-law has a probable case of the virus. Two other friends recently recovered from it. In every case, no one was able to be tested. Their doctor’s told them to assume they had it and quarantine. My friends in New York have already lost people they love. So many people I know, have family members quarantined. This will touch us all, it’s only a matter of time.
Facing the reality of our pandemic means facing the reality of death.
Americans don’t like to talk about death. Death isn’t a nice thing after all. Already, in the midst of a global pandemic, before the state has hit it’s projected peak, Iowa’s governor is talking about reopening parts of the economy. News stories advise us to use our time to learn a language, lose weight or start a hobby. As if this was just a small vacation and not an undefined internment. We are told to press onward, look forward, be grateful, pull ourselves up with our boot straps to see the sunny-side of a silver lining.
On Facebook, a friend writes that fear mongering from the media is ridiculous, “look at all the people who survive!” she points out, “You will be fine!” The day she writes that 2,000 people die from the disease in the US alone. They are not fine. Their families are not fine. A reader emails me to point out that more people die from heart disease than COVID-19. As if those deaths aren’t tragic and as if those deaths aren’t fought at every level of our health care system and society. A relative posts a meme about being ruled by Jesus and not being ruled by fear.
Last month, the president said he wanted to have the economy reopened by Easter. A claim he later walked back. “Walked back” is the phrase the media uses when the president says something so monumentally uninformed and dangerous that even he can’t stand by it.
We want to skip to life, without sitting with death. We want resurrection without sitting with the grave.
This Sunday is Easter. The day the Christian tradition celebrates resurrection — the triumph of God over the grave. So many will gather together to watch church on their computer screens to listen to hallelujahs and declare victory. Some will even risk exposure to gather together. In Ohio a woman claimed she was still going to church because she was covered in Jesus blood. I wonder how she thinks Jesus shed that blood in the first place.
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I grew up in the sweaty Evangelical churches of Texas. I knew about Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But it wasn’t until I began going to Lutheran services that I learned about Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday is a service of darkness and death. Some faith traditions cover their chancels in black. Others strip them bare. There is liturgy of mourning and loss. During Holy Saturday services the church sanctuaries are dark and congregants hold candles for light. In the Catholic tradition, Holy Saturday ought to be the most calm and quiet day of the year.
Holy Saturday is about grief. It’s about looking death in the face. Holy Saturday is not about blithely moving forward and pretending the world hasn’t fallen apart, it’s about sitting with the broken pieces.
It is only April, but already this year has been marked by fear and death. Anxiety over the election, a crisis in Iran, and now the pandemic and the collapse of our economy. We are losing jobs, losing our livelihoods, losing our savings, rescheduling weddings, not gathering for funerals. The world we once knew died in a matter of minutes and here we are, forced to sit and forced to grieve alone in the internment of our quarantine. As Americans we have seen this Good Friday death of our country and now we want to skip to the Easter. We don’t contemplate dying and we rarely contemplate being dead. But that is what this moment of social distancing is requiring of us — not cheery reflections that we will be fine, but a terrifying meditation on our grim reality.
I do not know what I believe about God and faith any more. But find power in the liturgy of being required to sit in our grief and giving it voice. And I know that before our lives begin again, before hugs begin again, before I can meet you in a restaurant, or laugh with a stranger in a bar bathroom, or sing “Goodbye Earl” at karaoke, or go dancing or stay too late at Pub 217, we must exist in this extended Holy Saturday, one where we must sit in our isolated darkness and contemplate this loss. It’s a necessary coda and we don’t know how long it will last. And no, not all of us will be OK.