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.
All of us will need a frame of reference with which to calibrate the new normal–the lens you suggest is one all followers of Christ should centralize for their thinking. Thanks for the contribution.
Indeed, it’s not going to be “business as usual”. As you say, we’re going to need to recalibrate.
The new normal is that nothing will be normal or maybe even familiar after this.
I can’t process what I’m feeling, nor articulate what I am thinking…but I do believe an apocalypse of sort has befallen us…of which Covid19 is only a part.
Well done, as always Duane.
I think we are all having the same difficulty in trying to process what is taking place. 22,000 have died, and that is just the beginning. Add to this the radical fringe actions of some religious figures and the lack of national political leadership and all feels very unmoored…
WW2 ended when i was in the 4th grade. I had grown up thinking war was normal -blackout curtains, air raid drills at home and school, ration books for shoes, food and gasoline, Griffith Park near L.A. had a prisoner of war camp, waves of newly constructed bombers and fighter planes flew overhead regularly, everybody (almost) loved FDR, hated “Japs” and Germans (Nazis), then Roosevelt died (FBI family friend said he shot himself), Harry Truman dropped The Bomb 2 times and the Japanese surrendered. No war? I wondered what life would be now with no enemies to fight, no “bad guys?” But there’s always bad guys even if we have to make some up. ..
P.S. I have never been to France, but a world without Notre Dame doesn’t seem real. 🙆
The church is called to be the light of the world. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
The church is on such a hill at this moment in time. And, whether we like it or not, due to the disposition of the media, if you have just a few bad apples in a basket of otherwise good apples, the bad apples will be a lasting witness that everyone will remember. And due to the extreme contagiousness of Covid-19, one irresponsible church can create a medical catastrophe in a small town. Is that a good witness?
So what is the “light” that the church magnifying on our society at this time? Are we loving and honoring our healthcare providers, by keeping ourselves and our neighbors out of harm’s way?
Are we magnifying our love of neighbor by socially distancing to keep them out of harm’s way?
Are we magnifying the authority of God’s Word by obeying our magistrates and governors?
Are we magnifying our faith in the power of God’s Word by demonstrating that He can and will preserve us in the faith of Christ while in seclusion in our homes for a couple of months?
Do we believe that the essence of the Christian witness during a plague is to be a poisonous snake handler? Because I see no difference between a snake handler and a pastor holding a physical church against the social distance guidelines.
Ignoring the social distance guidelines does not honor God one little bit.
They should make an App that tracks people that have the virus using their smartphone and then they could warn others with smartphones if they are coming into contact with a person who has had the virus or if they are coming near wear the person has recently been and if they won’t carry their smartphone with them they could just implant them with a device and if they won’t get the device just don’t let them buy food or sell anything.
directambiguity, you’ve just drscribed the new order of things, i think
Jean, the Church keeps on keeping on, but the times are evil & may get worse.. ..
“… the bad apples will be a lasting witness that everyone will remember.”
I’m afraid that you are correct. I’ve been impressed with how most churches have been handling the crisis. The others that you refer to, however, are making use of the crisis to supposedly “make a stand”. They are the worst examples of publicity seeking opportunists. It would appear that love of neighbor is the last thing on their minds or in their hearts…
While is far too early to evaluate things, the blame game seems to have started in earnest. There is apparently a deep seated need in the human heart to identify a scapegoat and thereby attach our animosity, fear, and misery. What a great time to practice grace after it has taken more deep root in our hearts.
From my point of view, in this crisis it is our own conduct which we need to consider…
upon re-reading your post, the Eucharist emerges as central to this process and, related, the quote by Gregory Nazianzus is worth mulling over and over. I find the combination of both the incarnation AND crucifixion before resurrection another significant contribution. Thanks for having a post that gives more depth each reading. These are drops of rain on parched ground.
Many thanks. When I came upon the quote by Gregory I was stunned by by the stark reality of what he wrote. Stay well…