By Ginny Schaeffer, Director of the Angela Merici Center for Spirituality
First it was toilet paper swooped off the shelves by the cart-full. Shortly after that, other food items became hard to find. Despite the assurances of government officials and food supply spokespeople, panic had gripped the hearts and minds of a population preparing for a siege. Anxiety, fear and panic do not let go easily, especially when they are fed daily by images that seemed unimaginable only a few months ago, by the numbers of people infected and the daily death totals that we cannot wrap our minds around.
The vast majority of us are living under a state of emergency declared by governors and mayors. Our lives have been reduced to the bare minimum – home, work and grocery. We are constantly warned to reduce our exposure to others and to stay at least six feet away from those we encounter at work, in the grocery or on our daily walks to guard against a virus that is easily transmittable and threatens everyone, but most especially our older parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone with underlying health issues. To paraphrase a saying, “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.” At least that’s the conventional wisdom.
This is where we find ourselves as we are about to enter the most sacred days in the Christian calendar. On Holy Thursday we will remember the last supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his closest friends. According to St. John’s retelling of this moment, Jesus knew what was about to happen. He saw the storm clouds gathering and he could read the signs of the times.
He had seen men crucified and knew it was a horrendous, torturous death. He knew that this is how the Roman government took care of trouble-makers, criminals and anyone who threatened Pax Romana – the peace Rome imposed through oppression, intimidation and executions.
St. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus did not want to leave those he loved empty-handed or feeling abandoned. He spoke to them of love, joy, peace and unity.
This is what is so astounding, even bordering on the unbelievable. How could anyone who was about to face the horrors Jesus knew was coming his way speak of peace, much less promise it? Yet, that’s what he does:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
How many of us, in this time of pandemic could use the peace that Jesus offers? How do we avail ourselves to the peace that Jesus offers?
We follow Jesus’ example. After the Passover meal was finished, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by three of his closest friends. After instructing them to pray, he goes off to a secluded place and begins to beg God, his Abba, to be spared. Three times he pleads with God for his life. These are not sweet, poetic prayers. They were guttural, primal, filled with fear, dread and anguish. In Luke’s gospel Jesus experiences such agony that “his sweat becomes like drops of blood.”
What happened? God met Jesus in his agony and the struggle within him was quieted, the division in his soul was made whole and he was able, once again, to live from a place of integrity and purpose. Jesus was not delivered from what was about to happen. He was not miraculously whisked away by angels. He was not given super-human powers to overcome the pain and suffering he was about to experience. Instead, Jesus was able to accept Judas’ kiss of betrayal, to denounce the violence of Peter and to heal the high priest’s slave. He asked the temple police who they were looking for and handed himself over to them. This was the grace, the power and strength of what we now know as the “peace of Christ.”
In the next few weeks and months the invitation that is extended to us is to follow the example of Jesus. As we see the infection rates and death totals rise, as we face the possible loss of loved ones, as we struggle to survive financially and have more questions than answers then let us remember how Jesus turned to God. Like Jesus, we must be honest and real with ourselves and God. No more pretending that we have everything under control. No more denying what is happening around us or to us. God desires to be with us in our fears, anxiety and pain not because God is some kind of sadistic peeping-Tom; but because Love seeks to make whole and transform. As we walk through this “valley of the shadow of death” we can trust in God who brings life out of death.