Just when things are going well, catastrophe strikes, and suddenly everything seems to collapse. Conversely, when our world seems to be falling apart, it may only be beginning. To tell the truth, things are not always as they first seem.

Surprises happen. Even first responders who try to help, those who rush to a scene to make the call, may not always get it right. At this writing, we are witnessing an increasingly fluid narrative as the virus named COVID-19 runs its course. We can only hope and pray for an end to the suffering and a less devastating outcome which, at the moment, appears somewhat more imaginable. Expect a lot of rewrites of this script before the movie comes out.

Few of us are old enough to remember the Great Depression, or even World War II, though the sense of unpredictability, imminent danger and a loss of even the essentials has been more palpable in recent weeks than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Including 9/11.

It’s been a Lent like we’ve never been through before. One that even seems to last beyond Easter. We started with the best of intentions. On Ash Wednesday we had plans about how we were going to observe it, what we were going to give up this year, the novenas we would make, the prayers we were going to say, the good deeds we wanted to do. We thought we were being reasonable, and hoped God would be, too, rewarding us with a certain sense of spiritual wellbeing at the end of our 40 days in the wilderness, not knowing it would be so uncharted, following as we want to the example of Jesus. Few of us expected God would be demanding of us so much more sacrifice than any of us ever bargained for. What can we make of a providence that asks of us a Lenten fast from the Eucharistic presence? Can there even be a divine plan in this — or is it just the Devil’s?

This is a Lent we lost control of — and maybe that’s the whole point of what Lent really should be. One more like the life the Lamb of God lived on earth, in complete obedience to the will of his Father, led by the same Holy Spirit who drove him into the desert at the start of his public ministry to be tempted there. And now here again for the last time, on Calvary for the slaughter on the Friday we call Good, at the ninth hour, the Hour of Mercy.
We were planning, no doubt, a Lent culturally and logistically suitable for 2020, not 1920, the end of the last pandemic, attributed to a “Spanish” flu. No one ever really figured out where that plague came from, any more than, as of this writing, there is unanimity on the origins of COVID-19, except that it started in or near Wuhan sometime in the fall. Suddenly, we are catapulted into what seems like another century, on a different planet, more like a science fiction movie than the reality we knew, or thought we knew. Stephen King even said “I’m sorry” that it feels we’re living through one of his horror stories. An odd compliment to a plot that the master could not have improved on.

A lot of uncertainties, yes. When can we go back to work? When will it be safe for our kids to go back to school? Okay, so maybe we won’t be able to shake hands in church again (good riddance, I can hear some murmur!), but if we’re good and sit six feet apart, will we at least be allowed to go back to Mass? Remember the time when we spoke of the Sabbath “duty?” Whatever happened to our faith that Sunday Mass attendance had to be made obligatory? Are we getting ready to use our freedom more wisely and gratefully — when (or if) it is restored? Will we bear more vigorous public witness to its sanctity or revert to the way we were?

One thing for sure, we have never been closer to what the disciples faced on the day after Good Friday. What we call Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil, the night on which the Exultet proclaims the light that dispels the darkness, was not even on their radar screen. Their lives were shattered, everything they hoped for, the One they had hoped in. They saw no light at the end of the tunnel. Death closed all doors. Jesus had died an agonizing death, and 11 of his chosen, closest friends never even showed up.

This night was the last night of their world. A complete disaster. As bad as our current crisis might seem, it is hardly more devastating than what this small band of disciples faced, the day after Jesus died. They were shattered and they scattered.

We all know how the narrative changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Not that Jesus hadn’t put them on notice. I never counted how many times he repeated that the Son of Man would be put to death and on the third day rise again, but when it happened nobody had a clue. In fact, the discovery of the empty tomb, instead of being a consolation, seemed even more terrifying than his death!

No one believed anyone dead could rise. We assume (wrongly) sometimes that these ancients were naïve and gullible rubes. They might not have had our science and technology, but there was nothing wrong with their IQ’s. Dead people did not come back. Period. And there were plenty of imposters around making predictions of a comeback, as historians account. None of them would return or ever make a dent on the world. Except this one.

The first response to this crisis, however, and even to the empty tomb was doubt. Read the Scriptures. Especially Mark’s Gospel, the earliest narrative. Naturally, many did not believe and, suspecting grave robbers, feared they might even be blamed. Mary Magdalene, coming to the tomb on Easter morning, was also frightened, thinking that the risen Jesus who suddenly encountered her on the way to the tomb was someone else, the gardener perhaps. Then Jesus addressed her by name, Mary, and she recognized him. She was looking for him in the tomb, dead. He was looking for her on the way, alive.

Easter, and the hope for the life that lasts, is not a story we can make up or make happen but a mystery we discover, that comes to us. It is not a what, but a WHO. Our efforts to find God in the midst of dark and foreboding times, can blind us to the fundamental mystery of who God really is. God is the Eternal Love from whom our being flows and who seeks US out. It is God who is seeking our heart, knocking gently at its door. Will I give God permission to enter?

Looking for the Lord in a tomb, or any other dead end, will bring me disappointment. If I seek security in things returning to how they were — the “good old days” — that quest will lead nowhere. Our hope is, rather, in a God who loves us, each and every one of us, who comes to us and calls us each by name. In the silence of this long period of watching and waiting, our best prayer is to let the longing that comes from deep within the heart to be our prayer. It is this soul-hunger that can never be satisfied by what we consume, being what we were or thought we were, that only God can fill, and that helps us discover our true humanity. We are made for love and only love can call us by our true name. God is the Eternal Love who alone knows who I really am and will come to me and set me free from fear, anxiety and all that kills. As they say in the 12-step programs, let go and let God. And remember, not even first responders always get it right. Be prepared for surprises. To tell the truth, God’s greatest blessings are yet to come.

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