(Source: Frei Betto, OP*, Paz y Bien; translation: Novena)
Pope Francis cancelled in-person liturgical celebrations at Easter. Other Christian Churches did the same, to avoid crowds that could expose the faithful to the risk of infection by the coronavirus.
My aunt is devastated. She who, in Minas Gerais, never missed the blessing with the procession on Palm Sunday, the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, the Via Crucis with the Reclining Christ and the Virgin of Our Lady of Sorrows on Passion Friday, nor the Mass of the Resurrection.
92 years old, locked in her house, she very much regrets being forced to have to follow all the liturgies on television, and what’s worse, without processions.
I tried to convince her (I think without success) that this year we will have a much holier Easter.
On Palm Sunday, when we commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, we can’t forget that he is there in the queues of millions of people who, throughout the world, look for medicines in pharmacies and for care in hospitals.
Jesus is also present among the nurses and doctors, firefighters and police, who risk their lives to save patients infected by the virus.
A gesture similar to that which Jesus offered when he washed his disciples’ feet, a rite remembered by Catholics on Holy Thursday.
Jesus is also present in the oversaturated hospitals, where he experiences the same agony that he lived in the Garden of Gethsemane when he saw himself facing a real risk of death.
Jesus – who was abandoned by his disciples and who faced the suffering of feeling abandoned even by God – is also there in the billions of people isolated in their homes and unable to meet and embrace their loved ones.
Jesus – imprisoned and tortured in the holding cells of power – is also the one who lives abandoned on the streets, without the means to isolate himself, without access to the health system, without a way of protecting himself with the essential hygiene measures necessary to escape the danger of a sudden death.
But Jesus is resurrected in the peasant farmer who grows what comes to our tables, in the trucker who transports medicines and food, in the retailer who guarantees all of us essential goods.
Jesus manifests himself in small gestures of solidarity, such as that of the young woman from apartment 404 who, every day, prepares food for the older lady in 302, because her cook is sheltering in place.
Jesus shows himself in the businessman who offers thirty warm meals a day to the people on the street in his neighborhood, and in the university student who volunteers at the public hospital to carry stretchers and to tend to the sick.
We have a wrong idea of the presence of God among us. We generally dissociate God from our daily reality. We think he’s in heaven, invisible to our eyes, and only reachable by faith. His silence in the face of the pandemic causes outrage to many.
In fact, this is one of the central themes in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, now back on best-seller lists. There, the silence of God drives a holiness without God. In his narrative, Camus reflects this misconception of a god who hovers above humanity.
We men and women are all image and likeness of God, but we lack the eyes to recognise him in our neighbor, even though we are able to identify Him in the consecrated host.
“God is closer to us than we are to ourselves,” said Saint Augustine. Jesus himself, when asked how we are to know God after this life (Mt 25, 31-40), answered something surprising: we will not see God only on the other side of this ife.
God can and should be seen here and now. We only have to open our eyes and heart to recognise him in the one who is hungry, thirsty, sick, helpless or oppressed.
Every time we serve those who suffer, it is God himself whom we serve, even if we have no faith. This is the essence of Christianity.
Caring for a sick person is worth more in the eyes of God than all the pompous liturgical celebrations presided over by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Because for God what is most sacred is the human being.
*Frei Betto is a Brazilian writer, political activist, philosopher, liberation theologian and Dominican friar.