One member of our congregation told me the other day that she saw this time of social distancing as a time of retreat with herself. Isn’t that a wonderful way to see this thing we now call “social distancing”? And isn’t social distancing itself a rather poor label? We are social beings, after all. Haven’t you noticed that people are more likely to greet each other these days when they might pass each other on the street? Can we ever be distant from our social existence? I don’t think so. We can withdraw from crowds, we can retreat, but we can never be distant from each other. Distance is not measured in feet – for example, the 6 feet they tell us to be apart from each other. Social distance is an emotional, spiritual condition. So yes, retreat is a better word than distance.
People go on retreats to refresh their spirits and to renew their faith. Retreats can be solitary or communal experiences. Retreat also teaches us how to use time creatively. People in our own neighborhood have formed a virtual community with emails and alerts and some are using their time at home to check on each other, to make face masks and other needful things for people. It’s an amazing time to come together while keeping separation. Here is the message of Coronavirus: It has come. It is now a part of our vocabulary, our daily news. It is part of our lives, and it will be for some time, even after a cure has been found. It is transforming lives. Perhaps it is helping us to make our lives a poem of love. A poem written by billions of people together, rising to God even from those who do not know God. After all, Paul told us in his letter to the Romans that we do not know how to pray to God, so the Spirit prays for us with groans that are too deep for words. So the love poem I’m speaking of is the work of God’s Spirit. It goes beyond our religious and racial divisions. It is the collective groaning of humanity. It is what unites us.
Today is the Sunday in Lent dedicated to the veneration of the Cross, and in normal years the flower-decorated Cross is carried around the church during the Liturgy. But this is no normal year and no normal Lent, so in most Orthodox churches no such procession is taking place today.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading that we must deny ourselves in order to pick up our cross and follow him. But let’s be clear: Denying ourselves is not a form of self-hatred. After all, how could Jesus tell us to love the neighbor as we love ourselves? Clearly we must love ourselves in order to love the neighbor. We must love ourselves even in order to love God! For how can we hate God’s gift of life? No, self denial has nothing to do with hating oneself or treating one’s self as worthless. We are majestically worthy in God’s eyes. And that is the only reason why Jesus can ask us to deny ourselves, because we are so valuable. He is telling us: Deny those things that keep you from seeing your own value and the value of every other human being.
The more we understand the value of our existence the more grateful we are to God who created us. And the more we desire to follow Christ. Thus Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. That’s the formula, and it is not a morbid thing. Retreat can help us see behind the curtain of fear and evil. The Coronavirus pandemic fills most of us with fear. It is an evil invasion on our lives. And yet – and yet, it is bringing out the best in people. Okay, store shelves are empty of toilet paper. Believe me, I checked twice this past week. Okay, so people are hoarding toilet paper. If that’s the worst that you can say about people right now, I say well and good. Hey, we can’t live without toilet paper! But except for toilet paper and some other panic buying, I’d say people are caring for each other.
Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Christ. Christ’s invitation is a call to simplify our lives. We carry so much unnecessary baggage, and very often this baggage is what keeps us not only from following Christ, but from being with and for each other in a meaningful way. Here too, Coronavirus becomes our teacher. As we spend less time driving around and wasting hours in stores looking at things we don’t need… And as we spend more time watching news reports of people dying and hospitals burdened almost to the breaking point, our powers of empathy are strengthened and we learn to value medical workers and other helping professions even more than we did before this pandemic. Coronavirus is forcing us to simplify our lives and to concentrate on what is most needful. As the separation among people grows for safety reasons we paradoxically find ways to reach out to each other more profoundly than before. And yes, we think of those who are without work because of this virus and now have no dependable income and perhaps also no health insurance. And let’s also remember those who have been forced to shut down their businesses. Restaurants, for example! Can you support anyone who is not working? Or your favorite restaurant that now can only sell take-out? This is the work of real community.
Human beings are essentially good. But we get distracted by too many things that push us into selfish behavior. The Epistle to the Hebrews today tells us that Jesus is our high priest. He understands what makes us tick. He understands not as a remote savior, but from the inside because he became as one of us – completely in every way. He was even tempted as we are, but without sinning, the Epistle tells us. And because he did not sin, he can help us overcome our own egos. Not only in the time of Coronavirus, but in worry-free times as well. That is why he is our high priest – the only high priest we will ever need.
Simplify in order to live intensely, to live in the moment – just as most of us are living right now. Simplify in order to find Christ in others, and in your own home. Is it hard to simplify? Will we go back to all our regular, wasteful habits when the crisis is over? Perhaps. After all, it’s a struggle to overcome the ego when things are comfortable and easygoing. But that’s where the message from Hebrews comes to our aid. Don’t worry if your faith is weak or becomes weak when life returns to normal. Jesus knows your struggles, because he lived as you live. Christ transfigures the ‘No’ in us to a ‘Yes’. Learn from this time of Coronavirus. Every year Lent is a time of learning to re-orient our lives. But this year Lent has been given an extra burden to teach. But what a potentially life- and world-transforming burden this is. Let’s learn what we can from this burden. Don’t be overwhelmed. Retreat – yes, to a physically safe distance; but an emotionally and spiritually deep place where distance disappears.