By John Gillman
The Gospel reading for this Easter Monday tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary quickly departed from the empty tomb “fearful yet overjoyed” even though the angel had just instructed them, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:8-15). But how easily the angel’s joyful message, “He has been raised,” could be drowned out by the daily upward spike in deaths from COVID-19.
If Death can ever claim to be “mighty and dreadful”—contrary to John Donne’s claim in his famous poem “Death Be Not Proud”— it would be now. Stronger than presidents and other rulers, Death has thwarted the mighty, at least during the past few frightful months. Death might say, “Just look at the numbers already in my grasp, I am the proudest of them all!”
In the midst of Passover and with haunting images of empty churches during Holy Week and Easter, we live more vividly than ever with experiences of suffering unto death, death itself, and divine rescue. The Holy One rescued the Hebrews from certain death by bringing them up out of the land of Egypt. Yet, as many have noted, the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, particularly the killing of the firstborn, raise perplexing questions of theodicy about why some live and others die. While hanging on the cross, Jesus utters a seemingly implacable plea: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see Psalm 22:1). Nearly overcome by the jaws of death encroaching upon him, Jesus appears to be on the precipice of despair. Yet God raised him up on the third day. Although synagogues and churches may be empty this week, the power of God is not diminished.
For Christians the ultimate victory over death has been gained through the Christ event: his death and resurrection. Paul can joyfully acclaim: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” The frightened disciples, fearful for their own safety, no longer had to sequester themselves. Everything changed when the Risen Lord appeared to them, empowering them to announce the Good News.
Currently, I am serving as a contract certified educator at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Living in San Diego, I began the unit commuting there weekly. However, after the coronavirus reared its head, co-teacher Rev. Cathy Schreiber and I have been connecting with the six students through Zoom. On the front lines with other team members — although more often in doorways than at the bedside — the CPE students have committed themselves more fully than ever to provide spiritual care during this time of crisis
These past several weeks, the inevitability of death leapt a few steps closer to each student, and to me. It was not so much if but when anyone might test positive. For so many, including healthcare workers, grocery employees, law enforcement officers, and delivery folks, the reality of death became much less hidden. The veil had been pulled back.
This crisis heightens St. Benedict’s reminder to keep death daily before our eyes (Rule of Benedict 4,47) and St. Francis’ invitation to embrace death when it comes, even praising God “through our Sister Death” (Canticle of the Sun). More than just the backdrop of life, death has now taken center stage. Contemplating our own death may be the most profound form of meditation.
Perhaps now more than any other time in our lives, the specter of death casts a long shadow upon who we are and what we do. But our faith is firmly grounded in the infinitely greater power of the Holy One. During this time of Passover and Easter, surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), we remain people of hope in the Living God who calls us, even while isolated, into greater solidarity with one another, especially those afflicted with COVID-19. The compassion we bring, the light we share, the hope we manifest, all join together as our faithful witness to all those we serve.
May the wellspring of our hearts reflect the profound joy of the women at the tomb. Having witnessed the horror of Jesus’ death — the painful memory still fresh in their inmost being —they are now overjoyed. In the midst of our anxiety, may we live in the belief that ultimately Life is victorious over Death. In this there is much to be joyful about.
John Gillman, Ph.D., is a certified educator based in San Diego and author of the recently published resource What Does the Bible Say About Life and Death? (New City Press, 2020), from which some reflections above are taken.