“Returning to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic

It is in one sense providential that a pandemic that has most of the country, and in fact the world, in lockdown coincides with the Christian period of Lent.

Lent is a period of self-examination, repentance and renewal. It is a time of intentional focus on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and where we stand in relation to the life Jesus lived and the life that Jesus in turns offers to us. Some people deliberately choose to disrupt the normal rhythms of life to engage in reflection, correction and conciliation.

This time the disruption is imposed upon us, by a virus that invisibly moves through our communities, infecting the vulnerable and unguarded. What is not imposed upon us is how we choose to use this moment. Specifically, do we as a nation use this time to take an honest appraisal of our lives, both individually and as a community, or do we prepare to go back to an old sense of normal without considering that “normal” should never have been normal?

Before the pandemic there was a party—one that most of us did not get to participate in, to be sure, but its revelry permeated all of the space we lived in. The music of moneymaking, consumption and self-indulgence was the incessant beat of America, and even those of us who were locked out of the Dow club could not help but move to the infectious rhythm. Of course, many of us saw that this party would end as many parties do, with the revelers stumbling out of the club broke, lonely and with a debilitating hangover. In the daylight outside the club, you see the real world in its harshest light—the pockmarked streets in which the majority scramble for crumbs and leftovers. Even as the headlines trumpeted feel-good news about record low unemployment, we knew that beneath the headlines was a story of immoral economic inequity, precarious lives on a sharp knife’s edge if we read far enough down the page. We doubled down on a you’re-on-your-own, survival-of-the-fittest society. Instead of seeing the poverty, dispossession and alienation of our neighbors as a deep wound on our own collective soul, we pretended that the disease was other people’s problem. We pretended to be immune, to be invincible. The suffering of others would not touch us. No need to stop the party.

Except that a wound left unattended has a way of stopping normalcy on its own. It has a way of demanding attention: Either attend to the healing of the wound or forfeit your ability to survive.

On Palm Sunday, Christians commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. On that day, the gospels tell us, crowds of people heralded Jesus Christ: “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” The gospels go on to tell us that in a matter of days, the same Jesus who was heralded by the crowds and honored with the laying down of palm branches was loudly consigned to be sentenced to the most brutal form of capital punishment possible. It is reminiscent of our own fickle allegiance to the Gospel: We celebrate Jesus on Sunday, but nail the life he calls us to lead to a cross hours later, leaving it to a painful death.

But now that we are in a period of quarantine, where we cannot engage in the activities that fill our days and often anesthetize us to the moral wounds of ourselves and our community, will we make a different choice? Can we begin by saying that we will not “return to normal”? Because the message of Jesus is that “normal” is not right. Normal is living a life that is not built on the core principle of loving God and loving people as the image of God. Normal is separating ourselves into “us” and “them” instead of living as the “we” God created us to be. Normal is acting as if the earth exists for our consumption and disposal instead of a gift from God for our stewardship. Normal is worshiping the gods of money and possessions rather than the God of absolute, unconditional love.

Jesus came to disrupt normal, and died at the hands of the fierce defenders of “normal” and had his body left in a tomb.  And then, in an ultimate defiance of “normal,” left the tomb empty. His resurrection leaves us with the possibility—the mandate—to not be bound by “normal” but to disrupt it, to embrace and build a new normal. 

So how do we seize this moment in light of Jesus’ ministry? One of the last messages Jesus left with his disciples, and thus to us, is in Matthew 25 in which he declares there will be a day in which the Son of Man “will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Those who are favored with an inheritance from God will be those who fed Jesus when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, housed him when he was homeless and clothed him when he was naked. Then Jesus explained that when we do these things “for the least of these,” we are doing those very things to Jesus himself.

That call to mutual love, support and interdependence is not merely a call to acts of individual charity. It is not a set of practices that we delegate to “heroes” who we can celebrate and then proceed as if their “heroic” acts are not for us to emulate. It is a call to build a system built on mutual love, built on each of us being a cherished and valuable child of God, built on the knowledge that because we are one body, the pain of one person affects us all.

Lent ends in a celebration of resurrection and rebirth. The period of penitence has ideally brought us to a new level of forgiveness and grace that empowers us to live the life of love and compassion that Jesus Christ modeled for us—not just as individuals, not even just as a community of believers, but as a nation of people embraced in divine love regardless of how or even if they acknowledge that love.

My prayer today is that we NOT return to normal. Let us not go back to that street where a few people get to engage in a debaucherous party while the rest of us are left cold and hungry outside—and let us not go back to thinking that party was where it’s at in the first place. There is a better celebration, where we are all invited, where all of us can help prepare and then share the buffet, where there is enough room on the dance floor for all of us. Let’s start now to make our world a venue for that better celebration.


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