I have a childhood dream that’s long haunted me. In the dream, it was just after dusk. I was standing on the front yard of my childhood home—the very home where my family and I now live. In the growing dark, a flash of light burst over the mountains to the southeast—like distant lightning—followed by a rumbling boom. I could hear the distant sound of hundreds of voices crying out in agony, sending chills down my spine. My imagination, forged during the waning years of the Cold War, knew exactly what had happened. A nuclear bomb had been dropped on our county seat, snuffing out hundreds of souls in an instant. As unlikely a target as Floyd, Virginia was to the USSR, it was profoundly real and terrifying in my mind. I had heard the cries of the dying and bereaved, but from my home, where I was safe and secure.
New York City’s numbers of Coronavirus deaths just surpassed the number of people killed on 9/11. And the figure continues to climb—not only in NYC, but even here in Virginia. My mom called me to tell me that a member of my home church had tested COVID-19 positive. (Thankfully she’s well enough to self-quarantine at home.) But thousands more are not so lucky. Each morning I learn of someone else who’s been diagnosed with—or fallen victim to—the virus. This morning it was John Prine—a familiar voice forever stilled by a deadly, silent force.
A pastor-friend pointed out to me how President Trump referred to the pandemic as a “plague.” “I’d not heard it referred to in such biblical proportions,” he said to me. “It’s gotten me to thinking a lot about the Passover.” In case you fell asleep during that flannel-board lesson in Sunday school, when Moses returned to Egypt demanding that Pharaoh free God’s people from slavery, the Lord unleashed ten back-to-back plagues on the people of Egypt. (Think rivers of blood, frogs, boils, locusts, darkness…great stuff!) With each successive plague, it seemed Pharaoh was going to give in, and release the Hebrews. But then, his heart hardened, he’d change his mind.
Finally God took the gloves off with the tenth and final plague: the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt. To spare the Hebrews, God commanded that they sacrifice a lamb, prepare it (along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs) as a special “farewell” meal before fleeing Egypt. But note an important detail: Blood from the lamb was to be smeared on the doorframes of their homes. “I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals…. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12-13 CEB) Sometime after midnight, “a terrible cry of agony rang out across Egypt because every house had someone in it who had died” (Exodus 12:30). The next day, the Hebrews were set free from their slavery.
As I write, many Jewish families will gather at table in their homes to recount this story through the Passover Seder. And as I post today, many Christians will strive to find ways to gather and recount Jesus’ Last Supper—what was, too, a Passover meal. Unlike in Judaism, Christianity’s remembrance meal has long been celebrated on altars in sanctuaries, presided over by clergy. While little will change in Jewish homes, Christians are left with the discomforting lack of an altar-table, struggling to find ways to re-constitute a meal which (in most denominations, at least) they cannot do apart from the physical presence of the church. Even if they have bread and wine—and maybe even some cutting-edge preacher leading a virtual blessing—nothing can take the place of a bunch of Jesus-followers called together to break bread and share the cup. There’s just no substitute for the real thing.
I find myself wanting to be Jewish. I yearn for a familiar feast in my own cozy home. I long to be reminded of how, despite death being unleashed around me, I am safe, and God is firmly in control. I’m hungry for spiritual comfort food.
And yet there are thousands being forced to choke-down the bread of sorrow, washing it down with the cup of suffering. Dreams cut short. Promises unfulfilled. Death visited on the just and the unjust. While the angel of death will pass over many homes, most of us will know someone whose life ended as a statistic. We will hear and join in the “terrible cry of agony” that rings out across the world. And the story will not end with some joyous celebration of our liberation on the far side of the pandemic. No. There will be too many funerals that had been postponed. Lament will be our song.
It’s such a cold comfort. Much like that Passover Jesus shared with his disciples. He holds up the bread, and tears it in two. “This is my body, broken. Eat it.” He puts the cup into their hands. “This is my blood. Drink it. It’s for you.” The One for whom these men had abandoned all things, with whom they had shared three astounding years, was going to die. He was going to die on the gallows. Splayed out and strung up naked on a cross like a discarded side of meat. A perversion of justice. Not so unlike a deadly virus that stalks unseen, taking some lives, and sparing others, without regard to title or position, wealth or status, religion or creed.
That’s where God shows up, and takes off the gloves. The gloves come off not to deal out death and woe, not to dispense justice and right the wrongs, but to expose the divine hands and heart to the wretched terrors of human existence. To take nails into the palms, just as thousands did in the centuries of Roman oppression. To take the anonymous and terrifying death experienced by thousands still today. For me, it’s a discomforting truth; but true, nonetheless. If I permit it to sear my soul, and permeate my consciousness like that childhood dream, it will transform me. By a raw grace, this truth will bring me down to the dust my own unimportance, my utter lack of control, and my own mortality. And if I allow it, this grace can save me not from death, but for life. Sure, it’s not comfort food. But it’s enough—sufficient to use a terrible crisis to free even hardened hearts like mine.