The time of Coronavirus is a time of tension and paradox. In our minds, confidence and doubt wage war against each other constantly. We are sent articles with sure predictions of heavy death tolls, while other scientists take a more moderate approach. We are unsure whether to wear masks, whether the virus travels on food, but confident that quarantining will somehow improve the situation. In short, we oscillate back and forth several times each day between certainty tinged with despair, and vague hope that things might not really be so bad as we thought.
This tension in understanding is also present in the Bible. We are pointed in both directions: certainty—“The heavens declare the glory of God”—and doubt—“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is high; I cannot attain it.”
It is also true about this time dominated by Coronavirus that good and bad appear together in clear tension. The paradox of life becomes even more amplified than usual. We thank our healthcare workers, our food stockers, our mailmen. We share in the simple pleasure of time with family without the usual frantic busyness. All of humanity is united in its fight of the virus.
All the while, coffins are piled in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, full of bodies of people whose families never got the chance to grieve them, who died without the comfort of someone by their side. Our faith is tested, and when it proves difficult to maintain, we are tested still more, cut off geographically from the body of Christ, our life source in time of need.
In the events of Palm Sunday, a precursor to the absurdity of the Crucifixion itself, Jesus stands, even lingers in paradox. He is celebrated by his followers, as king and victor. He is given a warm greeting by crowds of Jews. But the followers are tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen, the steed a donkey and the victor an unsophisticated carpenter. These same crowds celebrating his life would in a week be calling loudly for his death: “Crucify him!”
Paradox extends in Jesus’ life even beyond Holy Week. To his followers, he said that he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Matt. 23:12). To Nicodemus, a grown man, he expresses the need to be “born again” (John 3:3). Finally, to Lazarus’ family he claims confusingly that Lazarus’ sickness—the one that had killed him—would not really be “unto death” (John 11:4).
It makes sense that there would be tension through Jesus’ ministry: humans are essentially paradoxical creatures, and Jesus was the perfect human. The 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal observes that humankind is “judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe”.1 The problem, he thinks, is Fall: because of sin, all is not as it is supposed to be. “We have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it”.2 The human condition is thus one of certainty and doubt, good and bad, all mixed haphazardly together.
Yet, all through His ministry Jesus sees through this tension to a world of meaning behind our own. Shortly before his account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, John tells the narrative of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, who dies while Jesus is away. When Jesus arrives, he pronounces that “the sickness is not unto death.” Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, notes, “but still Lazarus died.”3 It is not that Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead alleviated all fear of death: Lazarus, like the rest of us, would go on to die once more.
“It is because He exists; that is why this sickness is not unto death,” Kierkegaard explains. Jesus’ incarnation cuts through the paradox. Only in His own death could Jesus free us once and for all from the fear of death. Only in Jesus’ resurrection did Lazarus have the hope to see eternal life. As the Scriptures say, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
Holy Week represents the climax of paradox—the death of God at the hands of His creation—and at the same time its final resolution. As Jesus rose from the grave, he gave his promise someday to restore man’s paradoxical nature, to resolve his contradiction. On that day, our sin will be put away, all suffering, all Coronavirus, all temptation will cease, and we will be made righteous once more. Our broken souls will be mended.
Bryce McDonald is a junior in Leverett House studying philosophy and classics.