If the COVID-19 pandemic represents a penitential season, how might we observe it?
We begin with humility, recognizing we are in circumstances we don’t understand.
We don’t know how many people will die or what long-term effects the virus will have on our families, churches, communities, nation, and world. We don’t have answers.
In that confession, we recognize our humanity; this reminds us to be humble in all of life. We are but dust (Psalm 103:14).
Rather than trying to control our lives, we learn to live in God’s grace, participating in God’s activity in our world.
We recognize our knowledge is incomplete, that we lack needed wisdom and that too often our actions seek to bring us glory and honor, not to share God’s love with others or to glorify our Lord.
In our concern to avoid earning God’s favor by our own works, we have discarded the church’s historical practices that remind us of Christ’s life.
We have abandoned the holy penitential season of Lent and the centuries-old practices of both “giving up” something and engaging in reflection and repentance.
Lent is a season of preparation, and perhaps because of the novel coronavirus this year, we collectively observed the time with a more somber tone.
Yet, most years, many churches tend to sing Easter hymns before Easter. We plan the children’s Easter egg hunt on Holy Saturday, when we should remember Christ in the tomb, or more theologically, Christ confronting the powers of darkness on our behalf.
We wait for Easter, so we can celebrate the resurrection, put on our new clothes, and enjoy a special meal with the family.
The upcoming season of Advent will provide another opportunity for reflection and repentance.
Yet, the penitence of Advent has been all but lost in our church practices, replaced by shopping for Christmas gifts, decorating, holiday parties, and singing Christmas carols.
The meaning of the season as preparation for the second coming of Christ quietly echoes only in the plaintive notes of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a song that seems out of place amid “Joy to the World,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Jingle Bells.”
However, it is the almost-forgotten whisper of “disperse the gloomy clouds of night / and death’s dark shadows put to flight” that is the heart of the Advent season.
We await our king’s return, and we must not be caught unaware. Jesus likened that coming to the days before the flood, when people “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” and warned them, “You must also be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:38, 44).
These church observances are not empty traditions; they remind us we need to lay aside our creaturely comforts and focus on God.
We need to prepare ourselves for Christ’s return by staying alert and not being so distracted by our lives and comforts that we let our lamps go out (Matthew 25:1-13).
This requires us to live out the lessons of Lent, Holy Saturday, and Advent throughout the year, especially in times like these.
Our world is a dark place.
Billions struggle to meet their families’ physical needs. Women and children suffer violence at the hands of those with power.
Changing rainfall and temperature patterns and natural disasters push people off farmland and into conflicts. Religious and ethnic violence and wars kill thousands.
Even after 400 years of slavery, mistreatment, and oppression, our black brothers and sisters still struggle for equal treatment and for their lives in the United States, a nation that promises “liberty and justice for all.”
A virus has upended our entire way of life, threatening the vulnerable and oldest members the most, but privileging none with immunity.
Perhaps we can find clear vision to see our plight: The world is a dangerous place, yet it has tricked us into thinking that our good deeds and intelligence will overcome this danger and bring peace and joy.
In these uncertain times, we learn to lament – not to complain, but to utter heartfelt and heart-rending cries to God, the only one who can bring deliverance.
We hold up our meager offerings, recognizing their insufficiency for these depths of human sorrow and despair.
Our tears are an offering to God, and our laments ultimately confess our faith in the one who is able to bring change in ways we cannot understand, including changing us.
We become willing to say with Jesus, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
Our situation is far more dire than “progress” will fix. Like the men and women of old, we need to wait expectantly and faithfully for our deliverer.
We do that by persevering in prayer, humbling ourselves before God, examining ourselves and repenting, and participating fully in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated on earth.
Rather than being lulled by our comforts, we are called to await eagerly our Lord’s return, ever alert.
We wait and lament the suffering and the death, from the virus and from injustices too long ignored.
We cry out with past generations and with our brothers and sisters worldwide who continue to face horrible suffering, “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46a).
May God be glorified by our lives during this season of darkness, and may we be refined and made more like our crucified Lord.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Rebecca Shenton earned a PhD in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. She teaches ethics and serves as the Administrator of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society.