Christ and Contemporary Culture

Christian Hope & The Coronavirus

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Peter De Vries

The central claim of Easter is that Jesus of Nazareth was mocked, tortured and executed on a Roman cross at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and then buried in a tomb sealed by armed guards. Early the following Sunday morning, Jesus was raised from the dead. He was not merely resuscitated after what we might call a “near death experience,” nor was he simply “living-on” in the memory of his followers. But he was raised from the dead with a new physical body and entered into a completely new mode of existence.

Not only that, Jesus assures his followers that this is just a preview of what’s to come. God has promised to do for us at the end of human history what he did for Jesus in the middle of human history. All those who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected with a new physical body to live in the new creation that Jesus will usher into existence. This is the core conviction of Christianity.

For millennia, this truth has been referred to as “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” This is not a vain and idle wish that somehow things will turn out all right in the end. For the Christian this is not just a possibly helpful Idea. No, it is rock-bottom reality.

But, of course, this is hard for us to accept because we all know that dead people do not normally rise from the dead. But that is not an argument against Christianity. That is the whole point of Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus did what no one else has done or could ever do, and that is why we worship Jesus as God rather than a mere human being like the rest of us. If resurrections happened every day, Jesus would have been forgotten long ago.

Even if we find this hard to believe—we should want this to be true. Why is that?

One of the authors I have benefitted from is an atheist philosopher who poses the question: What are we permitted to hope for? Do our former sins and the finality of death form an impenetrable barrier that no one—not even God—can cross? He puts this starkly:

“If you believe in God, what may you hope for?  Everything, or at least everything that really matters: the ultimate triumph of life over death, justice over injustice, peace over war, love over hate and happiness over unhappiness…

What can people hope for who have never believed in God or who have ceased believing in him?  Nothing – that is, nothing absolute or eternal, nothing beyond the ‘darkest reaches of death’…which means that all our hopes for this life, no matter how legitimate (less war, less suffering, less injustice) run up against that ultimate nothingness; it engulfs all, joy and misery alike…Nature is blind; our desires insatiable; only death is immortal.  This by no means prevents us from struggling for justice, but it does prevent us from believing in it completely or believing that its triumph can be permanent.  In a word, Pascal, Kant and Kierkegaard were right: There is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair.” ~ André Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

If we are really honest: those are the only two options open to us: Hope or Despair. That is why even if we struggle to believe it, we should want the resurrection to be true.

I would like to share a story with you that I think is particularly appropriate for this moment given our battle with the coronavirus.

In the middle of his life, the novelist Peter DeVries wrote a book entitled The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries was a prolific author, best known for his comedy, who spent most of his career as an editor and writer at the New Yorker. The Blood of the Lamb is perhaps his most autobiographical novel because it is based on his young daughter’s battle with leukemia.

The main character’s name is—appropriately enough—Don Wanderhope who gets to know some of the other parents at the children’s pavilion at New York-Presbyterian Hospital who are going through similar ordeals. On his visits to the hospital, Wanderhope will occasionally stop at the church of St. Catherine located around the corner on 68th street in order to gather himself together or perhaps to pray. On one occasion, he doesn’t presume to pray that everything will be all right again. He simply prays for one more year with his daughter Carol. He rehearses in his mind all that they would do together with just a little more time. At last, the day comes when the news is good. The marrow report comes back. It is down to 6 percent. Practically normal. Carol is in remission.

The next day Wanderhope purchases a cake with Carol’s name written on it in blue icing to celebrate. Before heading to the hospital, he stops at St. Catherine’s. He places the cake on the pew to offer a prayer of thanks. But then he runs into the night nurse who informs him that an infection is ripping through the ward like wildfire. Half of the immuno-compromised kids are in oxygen tents. He asks if Carol is one of them, and she nods.

The story continues all the more tragically—especially when we remember that it is based on DeVries’ own daughter.

“I hurried into the hospital. One look at Carol and I knew it was time to say good-bye. The invading GERM, or germs, had not only ravaged her bloodstream by now, but had broken out on her body surface in septicemic discolorations. Her foul enemy had his will of her well at last. One of the blotches covered where they were trying to insert a catheter, and spread down along a thigh. By afternoon it had traveled to the knee, and by the next, gangrened.”

The nurse whispered that it was only a matter of hours now, and she will slip away quietly. For a moment, Wanderhope pictures Carol in his mind’s eye. He remembers how little labor the sprite had put her mother through, so eager was she simply to be born. He sees Carol on her bicycle, the sun in her hair and twinkling on the spokes, as she rides past him on her first successful solo around the yard. He sees her practicing the piano, playing a piece with a smile of satisfaction on her face when she got it just right. There were so many things to do and so little time to do them in. But now he knows that none of these things will ever be again.

“The nurse stepped outside a moment, and I moved quickly from the foot of the bed around to the side, whispering rapidly in our moment alone:

“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

“Then I touched the stigmata one by one: the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed. I caressed the perfectly shaped head. I bent to kiss the cheeks… ‘Oh, my lamb.’”

“She went her way in the middle of the afternoon…In that fathomless and timeless silence one does look rather wildly about for a clock, in a last attempt to fix the lost spirit in time. I had guessed what the hands would say. Three o’clock.”

After taking care of some legal formalities, Wanderhope goes to a bar to have a drink. After six or seven, he suddenly remembers the cake and goes back to St. Catherine’s to pick it up. This is where tragedy meets comedy. On his way out, Wanderhope pauses on the steps and looks up at the crucifix over the central doorway where Jesus hangs with outstretched arms.

“I took the cake out of the box and balanced it a moment on the palm of my hand…Then my arm drew back and let fly with all the strength within me. Before the mind snaps, or the heart breaks, it gathers itself like a clock about to strike. It might even be said one pulls himself together to disintegrate…It was miracle enough that the pastry should reach its target at all, at that height from the sidewalk. The more so that it should land squarely, just beneath the crown of thorns. Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away; I could see it fall in clumps to the porch steps. Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one - whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me…for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Then the scene dissolved in a mist and Wanderhope, no longer able to stand, sank down to sit on the worn steps of the church.

DeVries concludes: “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which…was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol: the foot of the Cross.”

Do you see that we really only have two choices: Despair or Hope. When a little GERM can take away all that we most love in the world—the only alternative to the barrel of a gun is the foot of the cross.

The problem is that we modern people, in some ways, may be more prone to despair in the face of death. We may have given up belief in God or perhaps we never believed in the first place. As a result, we place all our hopes for meaning and significance in our love relationships—with parents, a spouse, a lover, a child. That’s why death shatters us. It’s not just that our loved ones mean a lot to us or their passing leaves a grievous hole in our lives. Rather, our love relationships seem to “demand eternity.” We feel like they are not allowed to ever leave us because we have made them central to our meaning in life.

But without God, what can you do? There is no real consolation. The best you can do is experience a faint sense of relief at the thought that at least that person you love is no longer suffering. But, let’s face it, that is rather cold comfort.

People may try to cheer us by saying that death is nothing to be frightened of—it is simply a transition to a state of nothingness. When you die you lose your personal identity and individual consciousness—and therefore there is no you left to think about it. But if that is the case, then everything you have ever accomplished and everyone you have ever loved will fade away in a cosmic abyss. If that’s true—then the philosophers are right—there is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair.

But Christianity offers us something better. Christianity proclaims that Jesus not only died but he was resurrected from the grave with a real physical body which was the sign that he would usher in a whole new creation. The gospel tells us that those who are united in love to God—who trust that Jesus lived, died and rose for them—will be raised to new life as well.

You will not be reduced to stardust. You will get your body back—only better than before! Even better—because this time your body can’t be taken down by a little germ.

And better still, you need not be separated from those you love the most.

If you’ve ever lost someone, wouldn’t you jump at the chance to get them back even for a moment? Wouldn’t you do just about anything to read one more story, to play one more game, to go on one more walk, to enjoy one more meal, to have one more conversation, to share one last kiss.

The message of the resurrection is you can. Those who are united to Jesus in love will be together with the Lord. Through your common union with Jesus, you can see that beautiful smile, you can hear that silly laugh, you can breathe in that familiar scent, you can feel that strong embrace.

For the Christian, this is not just wishful thinking. This hope is the center upon which everything else depends. Despite the efforts of so many over the centuries to shoot it down, as another prominent contemporary philosopher concedes: “This promise is not superficial: on the contrary it is part of a coherent intellectual framework…of extraordinary profundity—[based on] a concept of love and the resurrection of the body.” (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought).

This blog post is an excerpt from the Easter Sunday sermon preached on April 12, 2020