I wonder how the Hebrew mothers felt, huddled in the dark, clutching their first-born to their breasts, wondering… hoping… praying that what Moses had told them was true, that the Angel of Death would see the blood on their doorposts. They prayed that, somehow, they would be spared the scourge of this last plague, unlike the others that had gone before.
I wonder what they felt, when the shrieks and wails of grief pierced the silence and carried from the fine Egyptian homes into their Hebrew slave quarters. Did they cry for those mothers? Did they give thanks it was them and not us? Did they cover their ears to shut out the sound of the unthinkable?
We are living in times of terror. What until now had been someone else’s problem – foreign news, the crisis du jour – has hit home. We have grumbled about “social distancing” and closures of our usual gathering places, but it has seemed more like a fire drill than a real crisis. But as one colleague put it, “This is the week when someone we know, or someone loved by someone we know, will die.”
I got that word on Tuesday, when the brother-in-law of one of my longest and closest friends died of a COVID-19 complication. He had given me my first (and only) ride in a Tesla at a wedding I officiated for my friend’s younger son. He was otherwise healthy and seemed to be weathering the virus well, until it seized his heart, and he was gone. There will be others.
Like the Hebrew mothers huddling in fear in the Passover darkness, we wonder if our precautions will be enough to spare our children, our loved ones, ourselves.
It is a sad irony that the devastation of this plague may peak during the holiest week on our calendar, during the time of the Jewish Passover celebration and our remembrance of the death of God’s own beloved Son. For thousands, the celebration of the resurrection – and its promise that life and love has overcome death and fear – will be tempered by grief, or the anguish of not being able to hold the hand of a loved one on a ventilator or offer hugs of consolation and care to the grieving.
Three years ago, I wrote in this column about the famous Isenheim altarpiece, painted in the sixteenth-century by Matthias Grünewald for the chapel at the Monastery of St. Anthony. The chapel had served as a hospital for victims of the Black Death. What is notable about the painting is that the body of Jesus is pock-marked with the sores that accompany the plague. Grünewald was saying that Christ embraced the fullness of human suffering, and by his death and resurrection redeemed it.
It has been said that only those who have fully known the sorrow of death can fully experience the joy of resurrection. When Jesus walked incognito with the grieving disciples on the road to Gaza that first Easter day, he showed them how it was necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering his glory. And at table that evening, when he broke the bread as he had just three nights earlier, their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
It was a small, quiet act, breaking the bread. It was probably not even noticed by the others at the inn. But to the disciples who had fully known the sorrow of death it was enough. Death – in all its cruel, undeniable terror – did not have the last word. The tears in the night would yield to joy in the morning.
This year, Christ walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. He will bear on his own body the marks of our suffering. And he will join us at table and break the bread. And it will be enough.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter