The COVID-19 crisis commenced in earnest in March 2020, just as Christians were entering the penitential season of Lent. A full year later, it feels as though that Lent never ended.
As a nation, we have been on a yearlong desert journey: The novel coronavirus has claimed more than 500,000 lives. Millions have fallen ill. Loneliness, depression and anxiety are rampant. Thousands of businesses have collapsed.
And the pandemic has coincided with explosive social turmoil. Racial tensions have roiled the nation. Political divisions have deepened and widened dramatically. A mob even briefly seized control of the US Capitol. Even as the COVID situation seems to be improving, many of us still feel lost, beat up, disoriented.
Yet though our secular “Lent” goes on, the liturgical season of Lent ends this Holy Week. What can these culminating days teach us about the terrible time we have endured? Can they give us hope?
We Christians hold fast to an incarnational faith: That is, we believe the creator of the universe entered human history, taking flesh as one of us. He did this to redeem us from the brokenness that is our ordinary lot and that has been especially manifest this past year.
The Incarnation, the great 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said, involves a “downward trajectory”: Jesus journeyed all the way into the muck and mud of the human condition, finally accepting, as Saint Paul put it, “even death, death on a cross.”
Holy Week lays out for us the steps of this self-emptying itinerary. In the process, it teaches us to give of ourselves in love to others — a message that for millennia has moved even non-Christians and nonbelievers.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord sweat blood as he contemplated what awaited him, and he begged his Father, “Take this cup away from me.” He thereby entered into the awful psychological agony felt by anyone facing death. Moreover, the tradition holds that he experienced on that terrible night the anguish of every sinner up and down the centuries. Then, Jesus sensed the unique torment of being betrayed by a friend.
After the agony in the garden, Jesus was arrested by Temple guards, bound and beaten, experiencing thereby the powerlessness of those who have been deprived of their freedom. By night, he was then conducted to the residence of the high priest, where he was arraigned before a hastily assembled religious court. In this, he entered into solidarity with anyone who has been unjustly accused, compelled to face trumped-up charges — a phenomenon as common today as it was two millennia ago.
From the home of the high priest, Jesus was led to the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Though Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, he nevertheless condemned the Lord to death, for fear that a riot might break out. On this stage of his descent, Jesus knew what it was like to endure the insult of real institutional corruption.
Handed over to professional executioners, who brutalized him both physically and emotionally, Jesus identified with anyone who has had to deal with cruelty and abuse. Nailed to one of the most savage instruments of torture ever devised, Jesus went to the limit of physical suffering before giving up the spirit.
We Christians affirm that the one experiencing all of this wasn’t simply a hero, not simply an admirable human being, but God himself. Therefore, God knows what it is like to be afraid in a hospital COVID ward, to be betrayed by a friend, to face mindless mobs, to be brutalized by the police, to die.
If what we Christians believe is true, then the downward trajectory of the Incarnation hasn’t taken these negatives away but filled them with the divine presence. So think again of the litany of troubles associated with this last dreadful year. God knows them all; God’s presence has transfigured them. And therefore, they don’t have the last word.
Robert Barron is the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.