Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Great Fast of 2020

The coronavirus is making us remarkably uncomfortable. Which may just lead us to a better place. 

Ironically, COVID-19 has gripped the world during this season Christians call Lent. That's the annual 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- following Mardi Gras revelry and face stuffing on Fat Tuesday. It culminates in the powerful sadness of Good Friday, the quiet contemplation and healing of Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday joy. 

Most other spiritual traditions, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, all have periods or holy days for self denial, high atonement and worship.

But the global pandemic of 2020 is causing all of us to "fast" in ways we never imagined. We're not talking about giving up chocolate or social media time. We're not simply swapping meat on Lenten Fridays for scrumptious mac 'n' cheese, the shellfish platter or seafood buffet. We're not starving ourselves for weeks or even a day. In fact, in the U.S., we're binging Netflix, groceries and hoarding toilet paper. Meanwhile the contagion has canceled weekly worship, and many beloved traditions. No St. Patrick's Day parades. No church fish fries. All the public merrymaking is gone, that we Christians normally wrap around this fasting season to cushion its blow.

For those unfamiliar with Christianity, Lent is a 40-day period that commemorates Jesus' rugged spiritual pilgrimage into the scorching dessert before his public ministry began. Scripture tells us he fasted there for 40 days. Ate and drank nothing. Saw no one. Until Satan arrived to tempt his cravings, ego and faith. Among other things, Jesus said this to the devil, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" (Luke 4:4) (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Similarly, this diabolical and novel virus is tormenting us in a social and economic wilderness. It's challenging our collective sanity and way of life. Of course, that's also a rare opportunity if we can avoid the urge to pity ourselves. Our current shared pain begs us to join humanity in a communion of compassion. It's being continuously served at a table stretching to the ends of the earth. All while mosques, synagogues, temples and churches are shuttered. And Christians are denied the chance to approach altars and share sacramental communion bread and wine. Now, we must gather online and partake virtually. 

Physical distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are giving all of us just a tiny taste of true social separation. What's it like to really be cut off from loved ones? Like parents of servicemen and women deployed to hot zones? Or the mother who cries herself to sleep worrying about her incarcerated adult child, or an estranged teen who stays out until dawn? A homeless sister or brother? Imagine the sleepless nights among families whose loved ones are healthcare professionals and workers, battling corona on the front lines. 

Like hate, this disease discriminates. So, those over sixty are more at risk when it attacks. Maybe we can feel a little of the anxiety a person carries in some unwelcoming places -- where he or she is targeted due to age, race, religion, sexual orientation or place of birth. 

Today, we fear a potentially terminal illness with no known cure. Will we identify, even just a little, with those who've just been told they have cancer? Or multiple sclerosis? Muscular dystrophy? And with dwindling supplies of critical medical tools, many must accept long delays in their elective surgical procedures. Access to quality medical services is always an issue for the working poor. 

In other words, someone is always suffering. There are people in our world who share our isolation because bombs are falling or bullets are flying in their communities. For them, the trauma and scorched earth never end. 

In part, fasting helps us connect with the source of all goodness. It reminds us that we are powerless and in need of God's love and blessings. Letting go, for a little while helps me remember someone else is always going without. It reminds me I have more than I need and have plenty to share. Including my time, talent and treasure. All three.

This COVID-19 trial and "fast" will likely total far more than the 40 days of Lent. As we watch the number of corona cases and tragic deaths climb, the financial markets continue to plummet. Our faith and hope are pushed to their limits. The national and global outcomes remain in question. 

Yet there should be no doubt that individually, whether we die tomorrow or live long lives, this time can be a great spiritual awakening. The Great Fast of 2020. How will we rise again?