One of the wonderful things about working and living in Maynooth are the College grounds. Local families use them all the time; even more so now to escape cabin fever. To help people enjoy them safely in these days, our Head Groundsman, painted the appropriate physical distance signs on many of the walkways. Every time I walk over one, it is a constant reminder of what virus means for more than half of humanity today: keeping one’s distance. And, when I phone my parents in the evening to check how they are cocooning, I am powerfully reminded of the sense of isolation we all feel by rightly staying apart from loved ones in these surreal times. Our very physical presence may be a threat to each other.
During the week, I read a moving reflection by an Italian priest recovering from Covid-19. If there is one thing that unites all, he wrote, it is the sense of painful isolation. Afraid of getting the virus as we retreat to our homes. Those who lie on a hospital bed sick or dying are unable to hold the reassuring hand of a loved one. And then there’s the terrible isolation of those who grieve the death of a loved one without the comforting circle of community, the handshakes and embraces of sympathy that carry families in moments of grief.
Isolation saps our very humanity: grandparents separated from grandchildren; teams cannot play their sport; friends unable go to the pub; neighbours do not pop-in now; priests cannot celebrate or pray with their people.
The only words Jesus says on the cross today are words of utter isolation, desolate solitude, unbearable loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Betrayed, denied, deserted by his friends, he suffered alone. Lifted up on the Cross above the crowd, he was put beyond any consoling or comforting human touch; the women followers were not allowed to come close; the men followers ran away. In that moment, he embraced not only our deaths, but made his very own the loneliness and isolation that so many of us are enduring today, particularly those who are sick.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These final words of Jesus are both a prayer and a protest. Taken from the psalms, he has made these words his own. Not only does he feel abandoned by his followers, but even more profoundly, Jesus feels absence of his Father. His words echo the desperate prayers and protest of those who have asked, and still ask God, “Lord do you not care about us?”
No answer, explanation, justification, reason, is given to his plea: only silence. His discarded divinity gives him no immunity to the human pain of isolation. Into the darkness and into the silence “he yielded up his spirit”. He can do no more. He surrenders to trust; he utterly empties himself into the hands of his Father.
The Covid-19 crisis reveals a lot about ourselves. Everyone is discovering how interdependent human life really is. How much we lean on neighbor and colleagues; how precious are our family and friends; how vital the services and people we take for granted every day. We miss the taste of communion and the joy of community. We can now easily see through the false philosophy and economics of ‘everyone for themselves’.
But this crisis also reveals our faith. Faith is not only our belief in God; faith is also how we trust God our Father. That trust is tested and strengthened in days we do not understand and in ways we do not expect. As we learn anew how to trust in each other, we also learn afresh to abandon ourselves to God’s hands and embrace his will for us.
Last week, Pope Francis standing in an empty, one could say forsaken St Pater’s Square, called on us to “… hand over our fears to [the Lord] so that he can conquer them. … [since] the strength of God is this: to be able to turn for the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
Even the cross did not ultimately separate Father and Son but revealed the faithfulness of Father and Son. The cross is the promise that nothing or no one, no distance or isolation, can come between us and the love of God.
While this awful virus may cut us off from each other physically, we are held together in a deeper spirit of communion that has the power to reach through our closed doors and shuttered homes. There is a sacred solidarity to stay in touch through our texts, online, phone calls, and even through a warm smile and greeting across the two metre social distancing signs all around us. These gestures keep us human; nourish our humanity.
Even though we are unable to join our parish community for Palm Sunday celebrations, the Risen Lord who is present in His Word and in this Eucharist that we celebrate here in this studio this morning, is the same Risen Lord who fills our homes and enriches our families with his life and love. For wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, he promises, I am there among you.
Friends, let us reawaken and revive our Easter faith. Ultimately, God’s will for us is resurrection. In these most difficult and strangest of times, let us praise God who holds each of us in his tender and loving care today and always.
Recording from last year's Easter Service. 'I Cannot Tell' arranged by Dr John O'Keeffe