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The Right Rev. Scott Hayashi holds a palm leaf during procession at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark during Palm Sunday services in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 9, 2017.

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Turning darkness into light: How do we find Easter meaning amid a global pandemic?

We’re grieving a world lost to a virus. But how do you turn that grief into meaning?

The Right Rev. Scott Hayashi holds a palm leaf during procession at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark during Palm Sunday services in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 9, 2017.
| Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At first, it was only toilet paper. Photos circulated of empty shelves while seniors looked on. Facebook posts chastised the eager shoppers — the hoarders — and censured the media for energizing a panic.

The supply chains would prevail, we were told. Just hold tight and buy what you need, they said. Neighbors helped neighbors, shelves filled up and somehow we managed. It was only toilet paper.

Airlines canceled vacations. Ah well, said parents. We’ll fill our time with something else.

Desks cleared. LinkedIn filled with resumes of professionals searching for a safety net.

Chapels sat empty, altars silent, vestries vacant. Hospitals filled to capacity. Mortuaries overflowed.

Yet for all of this, COVID-19 tightens its grip on the nation, heralding a “very, very deadly period” in the next few days. Families mourn a national death toll more than four times that of 9/11. The hearts of survivors may fairly cry toward the heavens, as did the psalmist: “Why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

For Christendom, the conclusion of this week of devastation — our “Pearl Harbor moment,” the surgeon general warned — offers a reply as steady as the stone upon which its messenger sat: “Fear not … He is not here: for he is risen.”

This Sunday, hearts and souls across the Christian world will be reminded to seek respite in their faith’s progenitor, the man who emptied a tomb to fill our lives with abundance.

A view of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

‘We will find meaning in it’

Pandemic life has indeed been tragic for tens of thousands, but it’s mostly been an aberration for millions of others.

You may be juggling school-aged children while trying to work from home, but at least you’re still employed. Or maybe you can’t hug your grandparents, but at least you can call them up. Nothing feels normal, but it doesn’t feel terrible, either.

“That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” reads a recent headline from Harvard Business Review.

“But grief is for the other people,” you might say, “the ones who have truly lost something or someone.”

Right?

The world’s foremost expert on grief would disagree.

“We feel the world has changed, and it has,” David Kessler told Harvard Business Review. “We realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change.”

We fear economic fallout, he says. We miss a sense of normalcy. We crave connection. Without putting a name to it, we’ve been aching for what once was and what will never return. In a word, we’re grieving.

In this we have company. Before emerging triumphant from the tomb, Jesus of Nazareth was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He wept at the death of his friend. He was despised and rejected in his own country. He hung on a cross to die. Only by seeing grief to its conclusion — allowing it to pass through him — did he overcome our infirmities and our afflictions and create meaning for millennia’s worth of followers.

Catholic pilgrims and clergymen hold candles as they walk in procession around the tomb traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, during the Easter Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday, April 12, 2009.
Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press

To Kessler, that meaning is everything. For years, he and his mentor and co-author, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, preached the five stages of grief. When applied to this moment, they fit remarkably well:

“There’s denial,” Kessler says, “This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

But that’s not the end. After a personal struggle with loss, Kessler introduced a sixth stage last year: meaning. “I do believe we find light in those (darkest hours),” he assures.

Acceptance may help us move forward, but meaning lends a purpose to the motion.

Christ made clear the meaning of his tribulation: “The Son of man came ... to give his life a ransom for many.” To believe his objective is to allow the emotions of the present to flow freely — to move through us — and to set us on a course to find purpose in suffering. His is a promise to emerge from the sorrow not only a compliant being but also a changed one.

“If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us,” Kessler encourages. “I believe we will find meaning in it.”

Abounding within injustice

But what if we’re cemented in denial and anger? What’s the solution for us who forage for someone or something to blame? “Surely this virus has a culprit,” we reason with ourselves. “Who’s at fault? Why me? Why now?”

Our desperation tries to shield us from a dark and creeping thought: What if our demands don’t have an answer?

Injustice perpetrated by Mother Nature is hard to rationalize. We beg for a cause, for a reason, for logic. And yet, the reply comes as it did to the man who said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

The unfairness is incensing. Our response, however, shouldn’t be to retreat, but to flourish.

“I often reflect that the best way to resist is simply to go on being; to become, to blossom,” says composer Emily Cooley, who in 2017 was commissioned to write an orchestral piece on the theme, “Speak Truth,” an exploration of how musicians express truth in the face of injustice.

Cooley titled her work, “Abound,” a lush and flowing composition with rich harmonies and moods. “I think of power and oppression as limiting forces,” she says, “and abundance can exist as a counter to that. I think of abundance as a sense of uncontrollable growth, a thriving that can’t be tamed.”

At its core, “Abound” is a musical interpretation of Christ’s declaration — that he came so we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.

He, who commands to turn the other cheek, who was unjustly tried on spurious charges, who hung on a tree and pled forgiveness for his ignorant captors — he, the man who was abhorred for doing no wrong, offers not only eventual reprieve from injustice, but the power to thrive within it.

A Gustave Dore biblical illustration “The Angel In The Empty Tomb” is seen, 1954.
AP

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow,” he counsels, “for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” His plea is to live for today and bloom wherever we are planted. In a way, it’s about controlling the one thing we have power to manipulate: our reaction to the moment.

“Will ye also go away?” he asked his apostles, testing their resolve to respond to a hard doctrine. A global pandemic, with its understaffed hospitals, negligent leaders and anguished families — in short, with all its injustice — affords us a similar choice: Will we turn inward in bitterness or outward in compassion?

No one gets demerits for having to think on that choice. If compassion were a natural response, it wouldn’t need preaching across the world’s religions. But Christians this weekend may take heart that their choice is made easier by the man who was “moved with compassion” to guarantee that death has no sting, the grave has no victory.

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