This week has marked the anniversary of the beginning of lockdown. I was looking back at some of the scripts of these videos from that time and they now look very naïve. We all hoped it would be just a few weeks and we’d have been back to normal by last summer. How wrong we were! I’m also amused by my suggestions that lockdown would have provided us with some extended periods for reflection. Again, how wrong I was. Those of us who can work from home have found themselves shunted from one zoom meeting to the next with little chance to reflect or re-group. Others have been furloughed, which created an enforced leisure of sorts, but carries with it anxieties of whether there will be a job to go to when furlough eases. Alongside that, our marvellous key workers have been working their socks off all the way through it. So, lots of exhaustion, loneliness, isolation and its associated mental health effects, coupled with dashed hopes for a return to normality. Even with the current roadmap, the probability of a long tail of restricted lives stretching out for years not months.
How we respond to all this depends to a large extent on our context. Hereford Diocese is mostly sparsely populated, so the levels of COVID have been quite low. I’ve had a quite a few ‘gung ho’ letters – what’s all the fuss about, get back to church as soon as possible etc. I’ve been tempted that way myself. But then I get letters from those who work in the NHS, who have to deal with the carnage of this pandemic, who’ve seen people dying preventably, who urge us to be more careful. They are the ones who have to deal with the fallout from our lack of care and diligence.
In the midst of this, its important that we find a distinctively Christian voice. We talk about hope, but that isn’t predicated on our circumstances improving. We grapple with purpose – what is God up to in the midst of all this. We ask about suffering: where is God in the pain of loss or thwarted ambition, or anxiety about the future. These are questions Jews and Christians have asked since the dawn of human history. Theologians call it a question of theodicy – how can you reconcile a God of love and a God who appears to have sovereign control over his creation without crossing one out, leaving us with a vision of God who is either powerless or cruel.
The German Theologian, Jurgen Moltman wrote a seminal book on these things called the Crucified God in 1974. Its one of the few books I read at theological college that left a lasting impression. In the book he explores how the cross of Christ speaks not just into sin and redemption, but also the whole suffering issue. Certain models of what happens on the cross are caricatured as a cosmic safeguarding issue, as if God the Father vindictively takes out his anger on an innocent victim and that somehow makes him calm down and start being nice to us. But the brilliance of Moltman’s thinking is to recognise God in all his fullness is involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. God the Father suffers the pain of giving up his son, Christ the Son willingly suffers on behalf of the world and both are joined together in this by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel reading, John 12, from last week, a group of Greek speaking Jews ask to see Jesus. The message is passed on by the disciples and Jesus responds enigmatically, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Essentially, Jesus is saying that if you want to see God in all his glory, don’t look at the miracles, or the inclusion of the outcast, look for it in a Galilean peasant builder nailed to a cross between two thieves on the town rubbish tip.
If we question whether God loves the world, this is where we see how much he loves it, and by implication us as individual people. If we question whether the creator of the universe could possibly understand the difficulties of the human condition, this is where we see God’s identification with humanity in all its loss and brokenness. If we struggle to see a redemptive purpose in the events of the past year – here we see the greatest imaginable evil, the murder of the innocent son of God, transformed into the event which redeems and restores the world.
A story is told of an unknown and rather inadequate sculptor in mediaeval Florence called Simone. He managed to persuade a rich patron to supply him with an enormous block of marble on which he set to work. His design skills were poor and his execution even worse. In the end the project was abandoned in the corner of a Florentine warehouse. A few years later, another sculptor saw the botched remains and thought he could do something with it. Few of us have heard of Simone, but most have heard of Michelangelo, one of the finest sculptors in history. Fewer perhaps know that the work he made from Simone’s cast off is the statue of David that now graces the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Universally regarded as one of the finest works of art ever.
The cross is such a Michelangelo moment. I wonder how many little statues of David we will see when the story of this pandemic is finally written.