The Rev. Spencer Cantrell
Friday, April 10, 2020
So wherever you are right now, as you are listening to this livestream, I invite you to become still. Close your eyes. And become aware of your breathing.
As you inhale deeply, and then exhale deeply, recall that the breath that is within you, that animates you now, comes to you from the same spirit that animates the entire cosmos. That the spirit of God, the breath of God, which hovered over the primordial waters before the creation and evolution of our world, is as present and nearby to you as your very next breath.
And as you inhale and exhale deeply for a final few moments, I invite you to hold these words close in your mind:
“Then he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.”
— These words from the Passion Gospel according to John conjure up an uncomfortably close set of images, at least for this preacher today.
Whether we have seen it in person with sick family members or friends, or as essential workers providing care to those infected, or simply as people who read the news every day, we know that the experience of the mass death engulfing our world and global consciousness right now is one which
involves people ‘giving up their spirit’, that is, their breath. People are dying from this virus primarily because it renders them no longer able to breathe.
We all know that at the end of our lives, we will take a breath that will ultimately be our last. Some will breathe their last breath softly, gently, with the presence and prayers of loved ones surrounding them, in a familiar place, and in a state of peace and comfort. Others, and many today, will experience that final breath as a gasp for air — exposed, afraid, in an unfamiliar and scary place, and alone.
We remember on this day, in all of its darkness and in all its heartbreaking detail, that the savior of the world knows this very suffering. He has walked this very same way of pain and injustice, of political betrayal and personal abandonment.
Christ, too, has died in a hospital bed, awaiting lifesaving treatment that through absolutely no fault of his own, will not come quickly enough.
This is the mystery of our faith. That our God has known in his very body even the suffering of this day, the injustice behind it, and the fear which it brings.
And on this or any Good Friday, perhaps we are not able see or imagine it — and that is okay. But we believe and we trust that because he has done this, because he has known our
suffering, that all of it has been overcome; all of it is being redeemed; all of it is being made new.
— I want to share with you some words from a colleague of mine, who continues to provide pastoral care in a very hard- hit hospital here in Brooklyn.
On her experience, she reflects:
“At about 4:30 am, I was called to a unit to do something that shook me to my core.
A daughter was called to the hospital to her actively dying father, and she requested prayer for him at his door. He was a devout Catholic.
I grabbed a rosary and some Holy Water, and armed myself with previous prayers that I have recited with other Catholic families, and came to his doorstep.
Our hospital limits who goes in the COVID patient rooms, so outside the door was my only option. I prayed and as I made the sign of the cross with my gloved fingers and the Holy Water, my spirit became heavy.
When I left the unit, I wailed silently on the elevator.
As I searched for meaning and understanding, the word ‘dignity’ kept coming up.
The thing that makes this so devastating to me is the lack of dignity.
We are browbeat with numbers, and a lack of supplies, and the global growth of the disease. While these are all helpful and important, there is a disconnect to the everyday folk that it is affecting the most.
Where is the dignity for those who are most vulnerable? What steps are being taken to tell the stories of the people in communities with no celebrity who have recovered, or who have experienced the death of a loved one?
What steps are being taken to ensure the dignity of those who die alone, secluded behind the doors of their roughly 320 square foot rooms? How are we honoring the lives that were too quickly ripped away?
What kind of dignity would you want for yourself in death? Or even in surviving?
I am going to call and offer my condolences to that daughter when I go back to work. I am also going to thank her for the opportunity to connect to her father. Even if it was through a door.”
— My colleague, here, has given me the gift of an image of Joseph of Arimethea, the one who comes to Pilate and requests to give Jesus’ body the dignity of a proper burial, a kind of dignity which he was denied in dying. Joseph takes it upon himself, at some risk to himself, to make that sign of the cross with gloves on over the crucified Lord’s hospital door. To lay him to rest in a new tomb in a garden which he could never have afforded. To bless even this ugly and inhumane end of a human life with all the beauty and love which it deserved.
— As we return again to our breath, as I hope we will intentionally many more times throughout this crisis — both in grief and in gratitude — I pray that God’s spirit will continue to animate us, as a people set free by the crucified and risen One; to learn to love in ways that don’t seem possible; to hope for a world that is healed; and to bless our Jesus, when we see his broken and suffering body all around us in the least of these, with beauty, with dignity, and with peace at the last.