You know what the Walking Dead would be without the zombies?
You know what’s worse than the contagion?
Enduring your COVID-quarantine by resorting to the final season of Parts Unknown and being made to remember, like its the first time, that Anthony Bourdain is already gone. It’s like he knew the coronavirus was coming, knew his former prodigality would render him a goner, and took the gentleman’s way out so that he, like a certain selfless carpenter, could spare a ventilator for a neighbor. John Prine wrote a good song about a carpenter, and now this pestilence has him near curtains while Kid Rock is probably still on the beach in Florida. For that inequity alone, I feel like Job, wanting to audit the Almighty’s business practices.
Now, when I have too much time on my hands, is when I’m finally pissed off that Netflix cancelled all their original Marvel serials. Another season of Daredevil could get me through a Thursday. I never guessed so much of my ministry would be reduced to remuting people who unmuted the original muting I imputed to them. The greatest generation took on Hitler, but they’re no match for Zoom. It took our governor a while— likely, it takes time to wash all the blackface off before you’re camera ready— but now my little patch of the pandemic is under house arrest until the NBA Finals. No, as it goes with Kobe, the Finals are probably cancelled too.
Like you (at least, I hope I’m not alone), I don’t know if I can hack it. Just sitting at the opposite end (the wrong end) of the dining room table while my son’s perched in my usual spot, doing his “online learning,” I cannot focus. Facing the rear of the house instead of the front, the world seems off-balance and can only be righted (my actions reveal my suppositions) by compulsively consulting Twitter, WashPo, and the NYTimes. Soderbergh made a pretty prescient film (who knew Jude Law could do such a convincing turn as the Donald?) but Contagion did not have nearly enough characters purchasing new digital subscriptions. I’m sure I missed it, but somewhere in Armageddon there’s a character like me refreshing his phone for the latest David French tweet or Nicholas Kristoff infographic. The trajectory of my portfolio, I subconsciously think, can only be righted by looking at upward graphs of the spread.
Even on Easter it’s going to feel like Advent. And not the fun, most wonderful time of the year Advents we normally observe. Instead of alleluias, Easter is going to feel like those Advents the finger-wagging liturgy police always tell us we ought to practice by withholding all the happy until golden-fleeced good times arrive.
If I was the type to have a “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” cross-stich hanging on my wall, I would’ve already used it for toilet paper by now. And, seriously, what the hell about the toilet paper?! Another quarter of supervising virtual middle school and I know, I can feel it coming, I’m going to feel like Bilbo, “thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” At best.
When Paul writes that snappy little cliche about all he can do, he’s already been locked away under house arrest, not from contagion but with a charge of sedition.
While Paul’s under casa containment, the Philippians feed him. The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.
Paul tells a different congregation that the incanrnate Body Jesus Christ takes this side of Easter is one that has many members. So maybe what goes for the Corinthians is true for the Philippians too. Maybe Paul’s “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” isn’t what we so often make it (when we’re busy living lives that do not have any genuinely biblical concerns— such as, Death— weighing down upon us). Maybe it’s not an empty cliche, naive optimism, or hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness. Maybe when Paul tells the church at Philippi, whom I’m sure were equally chargrined at our Lord pinning his plans for the redemption of EVERYTHING on a loser like Paul, “I can endure all things through Christ…” he’s talking about you.
“I can endure all things through you who strengthens me.”
After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel “I am the Light of the World,” looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them “You are the Light of the World.” And when we profess “I believe in the Holy Spirit” we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he only a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ “up there” because he’s here. Now. And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: “I will be with you always unto the end of the age.”
Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church. There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.
Maybe when Paul says “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” he doesn’t mean “I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…” Maybe he doesn’t mean “I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…” And maybe he doesn’t mean “I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…” Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.
About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care.
The Body of Christ.
I can do all things through you.
And vice versa.
Maybe Paul means “You got this!” because “I got you!”
Maybe you’re the co-pilot referenced in all the cheesy bumper stickers. Maybe I’m the one who can help you hunker down and survive the absurdity that Jessica Jones ends after season three. It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but maybe what Paul means with his cross-stitched slogan is that the church is like a family— a distant family in this case— here to help you weather the storm. With every Twitter notification, it increasingly feels like it will take a miracle for me to survive this zombie-less apocalypse. But maybe you, dear Christian, are the miracle Paul promised. Seamus Heaney would concur. Like Anthony Bourdain he already jumped the good ship earth, but in one of his last poems he speculated on the poor sinner quarantined to his cot, brought to the Messiah by his friends:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in —
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those who had known him all along.
Take note, fellow pandemic pilgrims, Heaney titled the poem “Miracle.”
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