No Abiding City: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
No Abiding City
It seems like it all started just about a year ago. A few weeks before I had been in Paris. It had been a good trip, visiting favorite places and seeing old friends. Now back home, I was checking my email, when a bulletin flashed on the screen of my laptop. Notre Dame was on fire. I had just spent an afternoon in the cathedral during my visit. It had been a part of my life for almost four decades and now I watched as the flames rose, consuming the roof and toppling the spire. It was unbelievable, but it was real.
It felt like the death of all that was normal.
Then, of course, this followed on and preceded the death of much else that we once considered normal. In a nation renowned for compassion and built upon the immigrant saga, families were separated at the border and children were being kept in cages. The very idea of a free press was being regularly questioned by the highest office in the land. We learned of foreign influence in our elections even as measures were taken to limit those who vote. Now, almost daily, misinformation and disinformation emanate from the White House even as tens of thousands die from Covid-19.
It feels like the death of all that is normal.
Meanwhile, my wife and I work from home. We enumerate the number of friends who have lost their jobs and try to determine which ones we might be able to help. As part of my wife’s job, she is going over lists of various hospitality businesses and trying to evaluate which ones will survive and which ones will be shuttered for good. We work our phones and email to check up on friends and family, even as we try to comfort those whose loved ones have been tested positive for the virus. This week, my mother will have her ninety-third birthday. I will drop off her gift and card at the door of her assisted living facility and then wave to her from the parking lot, while I sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the phone. I will be cheerful, positive and encouraging, all the time trying to act as though all is normal.
The situation in which we find ourselves, however, is not normal. What was once normal has died. Whether or not it will return in the foreseeable future is an open question.
For us, in our generation, we are standing alongside those of past generations who witnessed changes in their societies which constituted a dividing line between the normal of the past and the normal of the future. As Augustine considered the fall of Rome in the fifth century, he tried to make sense of what had taken place. Resident in North Africa, the subjugation of Rome did not affect him directly, but he knew that it constituted a dividing line between what once was and what was to come. The Great Plague of the fourteenth century created another such dividing line, as did the global conflicts of the twentieth century, or even the Spanish flu pandemic. It is to be hoped that the present pandemic will pale in comparison to such past calamities, but it is certain that we will all be changed by this experience.
Perhaps our current situation will cause us to consider the message of Easter in a more reflective manner, for while the message of Easter is that of the Resurrection, that message is preceded by death. The new life of the Resurrection is impossible to understand or to comprehend unless we also understand the death that comes before the rising again. It is the death of Christ. It is the death of the normal. It is our death. It is that death that we are invited to participate in at every Eucharist. It is that death in which we die to ourselves that is the heart of the Gospel. To know the Resurrection is to first know the death of the normal, the death to self, and to recognize that, “…Here we have no abiding city, but we seek the one that is to come.”
As you may note, this is not a “Prosperity Gospel” message of a Christianity that promises a “bigger and better you”. This is about us dying in Christ for the sake of others and in that death finding life… the life of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. So in this Eastertide, let us indeed proclaim that “Christ is Risen”, but let us never forget that the risen Christ still bears in his body the wounds of the Cross, the marks of his death and of ours. If we wish to rise in that new life, we first must die.
As Gregory Nazianzus wrote, “We needed a God made flesh and made dead, that we might live”. Death comes before resurrection and in the resurrection we look for something more which is to come. Knowing this, we can proclaim, Sunday by Sunday, the mystery of faith:
Christ has Died.
Christ has Risen.
Christ will come again.