It’s been a brutal spring for everybody, but — for reasons I can’t quite explain — lately I’ve felt like maybe we’re beginning to turn a corner. It’s been three months now since Debi and I went into quarantine just as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting town, and I can’t shake the feeling that maybe this is the “new normal” — how I hate that phrase! — and maybe, just maybe, we can make it work. Unless, of course, another shoe drops. I can’t shake that feeling either. Maybe we can sustain this new normal.
I’m not alone in feeling that. The editor-publisher of Capitol Fax, an Illinois state government blog I follow, asked his readers, “Wellness check! How are you and yours holding up these days?” Some of the answers caught the mood, uncertain, tentative, but not unhopeful. Here are a few:
- “Doing good. Starting to get back out and visit other friends that have been staying home. Mostly still doing take-out, although we did have one meal outside at a restaurant with a friend (and his wife) who just got out of the hospital; we know he doesn’t have the virus because they tested him … just had pneumonia which he gets once or twice a year due to his medical issues. Starting to feel semi-normal except for the masks.”
- “I was sad earlier this week, and then I saw the healing slowly begin, the peaceful marches in the city [Chicago]. people starting to talk, and inversely people starting to actually listen and realize, that we may all be in the same boat, but our paths to this ship were most certainly not the same. Man, we need some serious change. … But I just hope we don’t just move on from this, like we have so many times. So presently, in a word hopeful.”
- “Feeling fair to middling. Haircut done yesterday. Next task is to get a dental appointment for a cleaning. Board-ups continuing apace. Kroger store had all of its glass covered. Did a bit of shopping (masked and practicing social distancing). Grocery was unusually crowded. I learned that the store shut early yesterday due to protesters in the vicinity so many people had to shop today.”
- “Doing pretty well. The news from Kankakee and Anna [of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in downstate Illinois] really helped. On the downside I’m afraid to get my hair done, have a massage or pedicure or eat out. My issues are small, but I miss my indulgences. I’m sending my money to help people pay bail. My gray pigtail looks dumb.”
Well, I don’t have a gray pigtail. It’s more like a combination of Elvis’ ducktail, without all the grease, and Pierre Bezukhov as played by Paul Dano in the BBC production of War and Peace. (You can see my hair in the video clip above.) But the rest of the comments on Capitol Fax I relate to. It seems like maybe it’s beginning to be a hopeful time for many of us, but fragile and uncertain and pervaded by a feeling that at any moment things can start to go bad again.
So as we transition from the 40 days of Easter into the season of Pentecost, the lectionary readings from the gospel of St. John have been especially appropriate. Preparing his disciples for what’s coming next, the risen Jesus tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:15-17). In New Testament Greek, the word was parákletos, and it meant a legal advocate or counselor. John glosses it like this: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The King James bible translated it as the Holy Comforter, which isn’t strictly accurate but which I like very much.
All of these nuances bear thinking about. And there have been times, especially in this year of global pandemic and political unrest, when we all could use a comforter, holy or otherwise.
I think there’s something else here, too, something that wouldn’t have made sense to me before COVID-19 got to be a daily presence in my life, and it gives me a new way of thinking about the Holy Trinity. (Just in time, with Trinity Sunday coming up!) I got it from Jaime L. Waters’ reflections in the Jesuit magazine America. She teaches scripture at DePaul in Chicago, and I’ve found her writing to be scholarly, spiritual, sensible and practical all at the same time. A tough combination, especially when you’re talking about the Trinity.
“During the Easter season, several readings highlighted the role of the Holy Spirit in sustaining the Christian community after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension,” she writes (on May 15) for the May 25 issue, looking ahead to Trinity Sunday. “Over the past weeks, we have encountered biblical articulations of the relationship among the persons of the Trinity. As we return to Ordinary Time, today we celebrate the Holy Trinity, a mystery of faith that demonstrates the love within God and its manifestations on earth.”
So it all leads up to Trinity Sunday and the Catholics’ season of Ordinary Time, which we call the season after Pentecost in the ELCA Lutheran churches. (When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, we called it Trinity.) Whatever we call it, I think of Pentecost or Ordinary Time as the part of the church year when we focus on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. I’m not sure exactly where it fits in this discussion, but that’s one reason I named this blog “Ordinary Time.”
Waters ties it all together by citing John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” She explains:
The love that God shares with the world comes from within God’s essence. The second reading provides us with the quintessential Trinitarian formula that distinguishes and unites the persons of the Trinity, affirming their relation to one another and the world. Grace (from belief in the Son), love (from the Father who gave his Son), and fellowship (from the Spirit who empowers the faithful) are all actions of the Trinity.
Just before this Trinitarian statement is made, there is a farewell address that can inspire ancient and modern readers of this text: Rejoice, mend relationships, be encouraging and agreeable with one another and live in peace. Like the Trinity, these ideas are both individual and collective. Rejoicing over the salvation that comes through Christ begins in personal belief, yet that belief is shared by many and unites people as a faith community. Similarly, actively working to live in peace and harmony is beneficial both personally and communally.
Grace, love and fellowship. OK, that works for me. It’s not as hard to understand as most explanations of the Trinity.
In an article in the May 11 issue of America (but published May 1 to the magazine’s website), titled “We have the Holy Spirit, even if we can’t receive the sacraments,” Waters speaks to the power of the Spirit but also — and more immediately — to the sense of loss and bereavement felt by Jesus’ disciples. And felt by many of us today, grieving because the pandemic effectively cuts us off from weekly communion.
She ties it back to the Gospel of John when she writes:
In a time when the world has been dramatically transformed, many people feel disconnected and abandoned by God. Today’s readings reveal that we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. As we near the feast of Pentecost, we are reminded of the power of the Spirit in the world.
In the Gospel, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as an advocate for his followers. The Spirit will offer them support by being within the community after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Recognizing the distress of his friends, Jesus reveals that although he would physically leave the earth, the Holy Spirit would sustain them.
And she ties it very directly — and comfortingly — back to COVID-19 and the sense of loss we feel in “a time of social distancing, [when] the reception of sacraments has been limited or delayed.” The sacraments are physical, and those of us who dare to can now take our chances at Peace Lutheran with a “drive-thru Holy Communion” at which the consecrated host will be distributed without violating social distancing guidelines.
It’s one of those tentative steps toward what we hope will be a fragile, sustainable “new normal,” but at my age and with my history of underlying health issues, I can’t take the risk. So while I applaud the initiative, I still feel a sense of loss even now when I can watch the service from home on YouTube. That said, Waters has some words of comfort for folks like me:
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is not constrained in the same ways we are. Sacraments connect us to God’s grace in concrete and visible ways, but they are not the only vehicles for grace. Remember that when Jesus promises the Spirit, he does not limit it to baptism or laying on hands. The Spirit is promised freely as an advocate (Gk. paraclete), a defender and a comforter, who resides within the community whose members love one another.
Over the past months, there have been countless stories of love: health care workers caring for the sick, delivery people ensuring the arrival of goods, agricultural workers producing food, people and organizations creating and donating masks and protective gear, anyone in an essential service, anyone who stayed home to save lives. All of these are examples of love. So, in the absence of physical connections and sacramental actions, trust that the Holy Spirit sustains all of us who love one another.
A lot to think about there. And a measure of comfort in its sense of the first fragile, halting, tentative stirrings of renewal.
[Rev. June 7, 2020]
“Question of the Day,” Capitol Fax, June 5, 2020 https://capitolfax.com/2020/06/05/question-of-the-day-3078/.
Jaime L. Waters, “How can we celebrate the Trinity?” America [website], May 15, 2020 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/05/15/how-can-we-celebrate-trinity.
__________, “We have the Holy Spirit, even if we can’t receive the sacraments,” America [website] May 1, 2020 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/05/01/we-have-holy-spirit-even-if-we-cant-receive-sacraments.