Today was the first day of May, a time that gives us the hope of summer just around the corner. Likewise, we’ve all been living through the drudgery of a sociological winter, a quarantine that keeps us hidden, often isolated, and makes our days stagnant. Many people in the Church long for gathered worship once again. Those struggling with depression or anxiety, who used to take solace in their church leaders, services, or buildings in which to pray, have been struggling to stay afloat. The days are grayer for all of us.
As many states begin to ease restrictions, businesses, churches, and individuals are looking forward to some kind of freedom once again. It’s not normal life, for sure, but there are buds rising up out of frozen ground that tell us our lives, our friends, our families, our worship are slowly thawing out. We’ll get there; there’s hope.
But many find that hope only in these earthly signs of a new day, when the change of seasons, as well as the change in our pandemic circumstances, are really symbols of the spiritual Spring in which we find ourselves: the Kingdom of God. It began when the first flower rose up out of the ground 2,000 years ago, and winter has been thawing ever since. Yes, it’s been a long spring, but we can look for the signs of that spiritual reality all around us to gain a deeper, more eternal hope than what the weather or the news can give us. We can see the Church growing faster than she ever has before; centuries of biblical faithfulness despite persecution; saints both past and present who manifest heavenly righteousness. These are new flowers springing up over centuries out of the dirt of this dying world. In this context every pandemic, every tribulation, every evil experience becomes a temporary obstacle to the long and glorious Summer ahead.
This is precisely why the Church’s perceived irrelevance during this pandemic is so disturbing. In the upper reaches of our national dialogue, those who are dictating the narrative of who we are have written the need for God and Church right out of the story at a time we need them most. The language of some officials, and the actions of many state governments, have deemed churches and clergy as non-essential entities. Many countries in the world shuttered their churches altogether, not just for Sunday worship but for any kind of ecclesial service. The Vatican closed churches in Italy completely, before the Pope thankfully retracted that stance. The Church of England banned clergy from serving in their church buildings, refusing to keep them open even for personal prayer.
It is during times like this pandemic, however, that the Church is needed more than ever. Though some Christian communities may have retreated, many have found innovative ways to remain a force of hope in this country, despite the declared irrelevance of their services. If we believe that the Church is a sign of true summer in the midst of a global winter, we have to remember that there are people who are cold, gray, and waiting for something greater than the reality in which they find themselves. Therapists have long declared faith to be an essential part of our psychological make-up and mental health, and yet today, secular institutions and sources of healing, important and essential as they are, have replaced rather than partnered with those who claim the healing of our bodies and souls. The clergy are those who keep our eyes anchored in the Kingdom of God, even while many of them, along with doctors and nurses and other essential workers, also help to keep our bodies healthy.
But clergy, and in fact Christians everywhere, have been given a not-so-subtle message through this pandemic regarding the place of faith in American national life, at least as expressed through some of our political leaders and government policies. The Church is “non-essential” and has no place of leadership in the nation. Leaders of both parties have made many statements to that effect, teaching Christians that their services are unimportant, that public prayer, the sacraments, and public worship have nothing to do with our restoration or the ending of a crisis in our nation. Rather than being encouraged to provide public statements that give counsel, truth, or ethical evaluations, religious leaders have been encouraged to be silent and shutter their doors. Our national dialogue glorifies the voices of scientists and doctors but not the Christian men and women in the front lines, ministers and priests behind the scenes and fighting against the poverty, depression, and despair that COVID19 has brought upon many.
In some states, such as California, the lock down has been more extreme, with clergy forbidden from visiting the sick as they die of this virus in hospitals because they are deemed non-essential. COVID19 patients are dying alone. No one is praying with them, administering last rites, keeping them hopeful with their eyes on Heaven. This spiritual help with spiritual realities in the midst of suffering and death is deemed unnecessary.
The recent comments by New York Governor Cuomo illustrates this unfortunate mindset and the growing secularization of those who are defining the national narrative. While giving an update on the virus and its steady decline, without any prompting, Governor Cuomo stated emphatically: “God did not do this. Faith did not do this. We did this.” Can he really be so sure? Does he know the spiritual world and have access to the other dimension and all its workings? Can he really believe with such certainty that God had nothing to do with the lives saved, the doctors and nurses who risked their lives, the love shown between strangers? What a false and horrendous dichotomy that is, completely devoid of any real hope outside of a temporary return to life-as-usual.
As the Church, we must reject and stand firm against this grotesque secularism. We must not collaborate with our own trivialization. We must reject the label of “non-essential” placed on us. We must continue to embrace our call to be a light in the darkness, a city on a hill, a garden in winter. This is the time to not give up what many of us have engaged in over the past couple months: serving, praying, thinking innovatively and witnessing to the glory of Christ wherever and however we can, rather than the glory of man. Many churches have shown just how essential they are, but our perseverance must not lessen simply because the pandemic seems to be abating. It’s precisely in moments like this that we are needed most, and as restrictions ease and less people get sick and die, we mustn’t then say with the world, “Ah, we have arrived! Our summer is here.” We have not arrived. We are only passing through temporary respite before the next trial, the next earthly winter. We will keep on passing through, until the Summer to which all other summers point appears, and He who loves us is manifested to the world and brings the final thaw.