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Lenten Lectionary | Grief and Presence Amid COVID-19 Virus

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Mark Twain’s 24-year-old daughter, Susy Clemens, died of meningitis in 1897.

Twain was traveling overseas and missed her final days. Her death would become the most devastating loss of his life.

The following winter, he wrote a heartbreaking letter from London to his closest friend of 40 years, the Rev. Joseph Twichell, in Hartford, Connecticut.

Sharing with Rev. Twichell the ways in which his daughter’s death had affected him, Twain wrote, “I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I didn’t know that she could go away, & and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind … How am I to comprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?”

“How am I to comprehend this?”

We hear Twain’s question today, pouring from the splintered hearts of people around the world as COVID-19 continues to spread.

This pandemic brings with it the added, cruel dimension of forced separation from those we love, just when we need togetherness the most.

We feel deep grief as we read of family members forced to whisper final goodbyes to dying loved ones by telephone.

We resonate with – and in some cases, we are – the pastors, priests, rabbis and imams who are prevented now from being physically present with people who are frightened, lonely or dying.

A few days ago, my husband and I visited by videoconference with a couple in our church.

The husband was diagnosed three years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and is nearing the end of his life.

As the four of us spent time together from two separate living rooms, our friend gave instructions for his memorial service and shared treasured memories from his life as husband, father and vocational minister.

The whole time we were “together” I desperately wanted to reach through the computer screen to hold his hand, put my arms around her shoulders, but I couldn’t.

“How am I to comprehend this?”

That same question seemed to hover in the air like a heavy mist on the day when Jesus stood weeping beside the grave of a friend he dearly loved (see John 11:1-45).

Of course, weeping for dead Lazarus was not what Martha and Mary had hoped for from Jesus.

What they’d wanted him to do was to show up the week before, stand beside the bed of their sick-but-still-alive brother and make him well again.

Not only did Jesus not come right away upon hearing the news of Lazarus’ illness, he arrived intentionally late.

“How am I to comprehend this?”

This story hints at the promise that Jesus is always about the saving work of God, bigger than our limited understanding of who he should be. Love’s mission is bigger than the urgency of any moment.

Of course, whenever great loss comes to us, the urgency of the moment is just about all we can see or feel. Our hearts are too full of pain to absorb words about mission or purpose or “God’s bigger plan.”

“Lord if only you’d been here …” Both Martha and Mary say it to Jesus, and I love how he receives their accusations, anger and anguish without defending his actions or dismissing their feelings.

He doesn’t interrupt; he doesn’t offer cringeworthy assurances such as:

  • “You need to be strong.”
  • “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
  • “Heaven must have needed another angel.”

Jesus gives both Martha and Mary space to speak their truth (a good lesson for all of us who spend any time at all with the grieving).

Though Jesus’ initial absence gets a lot of mention, early in this text, the second half of the story shines a light on presence, both divine and human. He provides them the healing power of presence.

In his breathtaking revelation to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” it’s the promise of life-giving, divine Presence, not added dogma for her religion-box, that Jesus offers to his bereaved friend.

And Martha’s also stunning response, “I believe you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world,” reveals a disciple who’s doing her best to be fully present with God’s Messiah, as he is.

Later still, after Jesus raises Lazarus from death, while his newly resurrected friend is stumbling into the daylight, Jesus is already calling Lazarus’ community to come and be present with him and help him to get free from his “death clothes.”

This final scene offers a gorgeous picture of what the community of Christ can do and be.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2020. Each week, we will have an article reflecting on the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. Previous articles in the series were:

Lenten Lectionary | Are You Angry When Your Cheese is Moved? | Terrell Carter

Lenten Lectionary | Journeying with Jesus into the Wilderness | Merianna Harrelson

Lenten Lectionary | Your Lenten Journey to the Far Country | Richard Wilson

Lenten Lectionary | Will You Boldly Push the Boundaries? | Aurelia Davila Pratt

Lenten Lectionary | A Blind Man’s Journey to Believing in Jesus | Austin “Mack” Dennis

Julie Pennington-Russell

Julie Pennington-Russell is senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.