“Coronavirus has made all familiar things strange”, so wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times yesterday, he also observed that “It should not take something as terrible as this to awake us to life’s inherent fragility”.
What was once familiar now appears very strange indeed and what was unthinkable a few weeks ago is now our reality.
Today isn’t an easy day for the Church. For all of us, this is the day when the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hits home. Our Churches (and the places of worship of other religions) are closed. This is unprecented, even World Wars haven’t closed places of worship on this scale.
Little did we realise that when, last week, we heard the words “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”, that these would seem be fulfilled as our reality a mere 48 hours later.
Today’s readings include the dramatic story of a man healed of his blindness in John’s Gospel and the story of God’s choice of the young shepherd boy David to be king of Israel. Nestling between them we have many people’s favourite Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …”, a prayer of hope in troubled times. Also there’s a passage from the letter to the Ephesians which begins with two instructions: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” and “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” both of which Christians in every age are called to do, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. Rest assured that many believers have found themselves in circumstances every bit as challenging as those we are facing today.
Living in a “world of darkness”, there’s a tendency to turn in on yourself, to no longer see those around you, to fail to grasp the bigger picture. On the other hand, when you’re living “in the Lord,” the horizon widens: you see other people, community becomes possible and you can step with hope into the unknown. It’s these conditions that allow us to tune in to “what is pleasing to the Lord”.
Perhaps, a Lent in which what was once familiar now appears very strange indeed is a good time to reflect on the question that the Disciples ask Jesus, “How then should we live?” “Live”, says Ephesians, “as children of light”. This whole passage is about what “Living as children of light” means for people of faith in their daily life and no more so than today.
Ephesus was a large city of diverse populations, home to numerous shrines and deities, and especially to the great temple of Artemis. In this sophisticated, pluralistic city, Christians were nothing more than a distinctive minority. Many Christians today might feel the same way in the diverse, ‘sophisticated’ world in which we live. “Living as children of light” doesn’t call for fear, hiding in safe places, keeping things quiet. It calls for sharing the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ to a frightened and anxious world, tempted to selfishly stockpile.
Today is Mothering Sunday, the mid-point of our Lenten journey. Those of us that have been taking Mothering Sunday posies to people within and also on the fringes of our congregations, have found beaming smiles and recipients so grateful to see a suitably ‘social-distanced’ person at the door bearing a tiny posy and a copy of Simon’s short Mothering Sunday piece about being flowers in our world, suggesting that we “fill the world with fragrance, and give flavour to life”. Yes that’s “living a children of light”.
In the exhortation to live as children of the light, the Ephesians are expected to care for one another as family. But we as people of faith are not just any old family. The Christian Family and especially the Church, is called to “speak the truth in love”, as a mother does to her child, as a means to grow and as a goal for growing. Only in this way can we mature into the body of Christ we’re called and enabled to be.
This lifestyle isn’t a mystery. It’s been described in every kind of literature from poetry, to novels, to self-help books, to the Bible, over and over again. We all know what it looks like, even if we only catch glimpses of it now and again. We see it in the seemingly random acts of kindness towards strangers and the smiles and camaraderie of people united in adversity. We see it in the unexpected and in those things that we so easily overlook. We see it in the delicate, ephemeral spring blossom, that “awake us” each year “to life’s inherent fragility”, as it appears and then it’s gone.
So, even if we’re unable to meet as congregations, to hold services in Church and to do many of the things that we’ve become used to doing, we can use every other means at our disposal, to pay attention, to listen to one another, to seek one another’s well-being, without fear or favour, not judging whether someone does or does not ‘deserve’ this kind of attention. We and all those around us are Children of God. As Simon put it in his Mothering Sunday piece: “There is an important place for our individual response to God, but when we come together as a church we discover new things about ourselves as we relate to each other as well as to God. Like a flower arrangement, we can bring out the best in each other, and complement and support each other.” We need to find ways to do just that, without endangering ourselves and others.
Our reading from Samuel speaks of a time when chaos engulfed Israel in a way that’s become all too familiar over the past week. God sent Samuel with his response and as Samuel tries to do what God seems to be asking him; he gets more and more confused – the obvious doesn’t appear to be what God wants.
As he works through Jesse’s sons from the oldest downwards, he gets increasingly frustrated as God seems to be rejecting them one by one saying: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart”.
It’s only when they get to the bottom of the barrel to the ignored and forgotten David, whose looking after the sheep in the field, the least and the unexpected, it’s only then that the answer comes. As the days, weeks and months go by and more and more of what was once familiar becomes very strange indeed, we need to remember that it’s in the least and the unexpected that the miraculous will happen – though perhaps not in the way that Donald Trump predicted of Covid-19 on 27th February: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Amen.