By DANIEL KIDDER-McQUOWN
As 2 billion Christians worldwide experience Easter in the midst of this pandemic we ask: Is there anything redeeming about what we are going through? It’s one thing to look at the silver lining; there have been many good things that have come from our collective coping. But what about COVID-19? Is there anything good or redemptive about the illness itself?
This is an especially urgent question for all of us who are on the front lines of ministry during the crisis.
In answer, I can look to the story of Holy Week. Instead of going to war against oppression and the powers of the world, Jesus chose a very different path. When he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, he was not a secular King, but rather the embodiment of grace. In the Last Supper, he celebrated the overwhelming love and presence of God. In the garden of Gethsemane, he was perhaps at his most vulnerable with God. On the cross, Jesus was faithful and offered grace. On Easter morning, Jesus gave peace.
During the events of Holy Week, Jesus faced the worst elements of humanity. He was in a crisis situation, and it was his faith that carried him through. Despite experiencing the worst, Jesus held to the ultimate goodness of people, as created in the image of God. Despite every reason to let go, Jesus reaffirmed his faith in God.
The suffering of Jesus was devastating. And yet, one could ask: Would we have Christianity without Holy Week? If Jesus had not suffered, would Christians have the gift of redemption and salvation? Is Jesus’ suffering redemptive? Does this make all the betrayal, violence, greed, and disillusionment that he went through somehow redemptive in and of itself?
These questions are similar to how I look at COVID-19. There is no question some good things will come out of this devastating pandemic. But can we say that the actual illness, COVID-19, is redemptive?
The short answer is emphatically: NO.
COVID-19 is not redemptive in and of itself.
As a hospital chaplain, my work has been consumed by this illness. I have prayed over patients who have died. I have prayed for and reassured patients who are separated from everyone else. I do this from outside their room, talking with them on the phone, or calling them from my office. Their family members cannot visit. They are frightened by their loved one’s condition. This is heart-wrenching for all. And then there are the staff members. While the nurses, therapists, environmental service workers, and physicians are heroes, they are also human. They have families, and they have bodies that—no matter if they take all the precautions—can also be susceptible to COVID-19. Further on, the rest of the hospital staff lives in anxiety, despite everyone’s incredible will to be healers, the presence of anxiety is palpable everywhere.
After watching COVID-19 up close, I have accumulated a good amount of anger at the illness, and the Coronavirus which causes it. It is difficult to see this illness as redemptive in any way.
To handle my anger, I have turned to my faith. My faith has guided me through my emotions. I pray constantly. I give my feelings of anger and powerlessness and anxiety to God. I ask God to give me a heart of compassion and love in the midst of the swirling anxiety and devastation. I remember that I am called to be like Jesus. To follow him into the places of deepest hurt. I pray that I offer the presence and peace and healing mercies through the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that I am a good teammate for my fellow chaplains and health care workers, as well as for my home community. Still, I confess: I do not like COVID-19. If I could choose, I would eliminate it. However, like the cross Jesus carried, COVID-19 is a reality of our present day.
Faith teaches me that I have choices in how I deal with this seemingly universal suffering. Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). This is a choice of how to see suffering, and COVID-19 is certainly “the sufferings of this present time.” I do not see the suffering as redemptive in and of itself. However, the faith that can be revealed in this time is redemptive. The faith I have witnessed in patients, families, and staff, as well as throughout my home community, has been truly inspiring. It has brought out the best in people at a time when the world suffers. While COVID-19 is not redemptive, our response to it certainly is.
The Passion story of Holy Week—from Palm Sunday to Holy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter—is one of redemption and salvation. I do not believe the suffering Jesus endured was redemptive in and of itself. What was redemptive was the choices Jesus made for us and for God, and the incredible acts of God that were revealed.
My prayer is that people of all traditions will find some kind of redemption in the midst of this suffering. As has been said by so many, I hope we come out of this crisis and devastation as better people. This is, I believe, a choice.
The Rev. Daniel Kidder-McQuown is a chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.