‘What are you afraid of?” Pope Francis repeated this question during his March 27 prayer service, just two Fridays before the strangest Good Friday that most Christians in the contemporary West have ever experienced.
At a time of such uncertainty, it was a witness to trust in more than what we can clearly see, more than is of this world.
There’s an old William F. Buckley column about Good Friday that I often read around this time of year. In it, the founder of National Review shares his annual discernment about whether or not to close the office on that sacred day. It’s not because he disputed Good Friday’s importance, but precisely because he considered it a most holy day that he would pause every time. This is what he struggled with: If he strongly suspected or even knew that some of his Christian employees were going to use the day to do the 1964 equivalent of watching Netflix, would WFB be in the wrong to close the office? If he gave them the opportunity to approach the day as any other workday, would they at least be in good conscience performing a duty and service? Suffice it to say: Good Friday was of the utmost importance to Bill, and I have no reason to believe that if he were still alive (he died twelve years ago this winter), this wouldn’t be as much the case in 2020 as it ever was. However strange it may be this year.
I am far from alone in aching for a Buckley column on all that is happening now. What would Bill, in the prime of his experience and wisdom, say about all that is going on? It’s only a natural longing — to want a father, an elder, to weigh in. Someone of that sort who died in recent years was said to have shared with a close aide that while he didn’t quite understand the grand plan behind everything that was happening in the world, he had the utmost confident faith that it would make sense were he to come to see the face of God.
That’s actually the Buckley column I want — the one that clears away some of the earthly brush and sees everything from the vantage point of Heaven. Of course, I suspect we couldn’t handle that. It would require us facing some of our own complicity in some of the sorrow inflicted on the human heart by our own cruelty and indifference, impatience, and simple thoughtlessness — never mind actual malice, of the kind I saw when I made the mistake of clicking on a video on Twitter that turned out to be a man walking through a grocery-store aisle opening bottles of juices and drinking from them, joking with his filming buddy about spreading coronavirus and clearly not caring about a soul beyond their cruel actions.
But short of Bill Buckley filing a column with means other than a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop, here we are in the holiest week of the year for Christians, asking some basic questions, like Where is God in all of this? and Why has Father had to lock the doors of the parish church in many cases? Well, of course, we know the reason for the latter. “In an abundance of caution” and even, in some cities and states, with fines attached to attempts to gather. In New York City, the mayor even threatened to shut down and permanently close houses of worship that violated orders to stop gathering. Mercifully, that won’t, I think, pass constitutional muster, but the challenge remains: What do these holy days of Passover and Holy Week and Easter look like when everything but the grocery stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores seem to be closed? Yes, there is takeout and online shopping, but what is Easter Sunday without a new dress for church? What is the Passover seder without people? If you live on your own, that is literally the reality. We live Palm Sunday this year without the palms, and Good Friday without the veneration of the Cross. How do we mark all of these things without our sanctuaries, without the ability to be with people, never mind our ministers?
Well, Palm Sunday was never really about the palms, and Easter was never about baskets and bonnets or even the Easter finest at church. Passover is literally about liberation from slavery. Easter is about freedom from sin and death. At a time when evil is inescapable — this virus has many of us sheltering in place from this invisible coronavirus menace, with an unprecedented number of Americans having to file for unemployment on account of this. The questions that WFB raised about a normal Good Friday back in the day (which was last year, even if was no longer with us in the traditional sense) is our challenge today. Are we going to make use of this time to make sure our lives are what they should be? Or are we going to watch this like it’s an interactive series on Netflix, that somehow bought us a lot more time for viewing? It’s safe to say what our lives and the world need us to choose. For people of faith, actively choosing the unholy path is the only thing to fear.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.