“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 (KJV)
Easter Sunday came and went. I am still waiting for Easter joy to overtake me. I am awaiting a burst of alleluias and perhaps even an unfurling of pastels and hats for some kind of external affirmation that Easter appeared on the calendar. None of that has arrived as yet.
Like most Holy Days, Good Friday and Easter have lost their significance and meaning amidst increasing commercialization and secularization. These were not the challenges for me this year. I was keenly aware that it was Holy Week, even though that knowledge kept slipping from my consciousness every few hours. The penitence of the Lenten season had escaped me as I found myself, like so many others, traveling roads of uncertainty paved by a global pandemic that has changed the world as we know it.
Easter Sunday 2020 was troubling for me. I woke to a gloomy Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York where I have been in residence since March 21. Easter Sunday marked a full 22 days of being in the house, having been outside only once in those 22 days. On this Easter Sunday morning, there was a stillness in the air, a quietness that pointed to an absence of voices outside. There were no sounds of heels on the sidewalk heading for church. No sounds of cars going by. Absent were the sounds of an Easter morning rush. And, also absent was my own ability to find joy on this Easter morning.
The knowledge of the empty tomb was no source of celebration in the usual way. Instead, I felt reminded of my mortality, my vulnerability and my fragility. Staring at that empty tomb the Easter story, looking for the body of Jesus reminded me that I was not in that tomb on this Easter morning. There was a sadness and a burdensome weight that lingered, as I struggled with Easter morning in the midst of a global pandemic. I had no alleluias to sing and none to say. Instead, I found myself stuck on Psalm 23, with the words of verse 4 on repeat: “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The valley of the shadow of death was a real place I was still trudging through. Was I stuck at the foot of the cross, having a Good Friday experience where death lingered and lament was to be heard? I had a sense of gloom and a shroud of sadness that reminded me that through weeks of being sick and moving through days when I thought death to be imminent, I was still sitting with death, grief and anger on this Easter Sunday.
My weeks leading up to Easter Sunday 2020 were lined with the memories of preparing to deploy our staff to work from home, as COVID-19 swept in among us. On our first day of full deployment, I spent the morning in the office and went home to the news that my father was ill. He died the following morning on March 21, at 4:34 AM, while I was enroute from my home in Ohio to New York. There was no grieving to be done. We were in shock, stunned by the swiftness of death. My mother died in April 2018. Her death was lingering. My siblings and I were days shy of that two-year anniversary, grappling with the death of another parent.
Over the next five days, three of us got progressively sick. As New York City watched the numbers of the sick and the dead escalate, we were uncounted in the numbers, in lock down moving through the multiple stages of flu-like symptoms and trying to care for each other. In those days, we learned that my father’s cause of death was the novel coronavirus.
The symptoms were mild at first. Headaches that presented as a dull throbbing. Low grade fever. Lack of appetite. Then the fatigue set in. I slept for hours, unable to stay awake because I was just too tired. I did not eat for days, and did not notice, I was just too tired. When the fever was at its highest - 101.9 - the headaches and fatigue got worse. With the elevated body temperature came the chills. I would awake in the morning drenched in sweat. All of this was worrying to myself and as I struggled with my own challenges, my sister and nephew were having similar symptoms. Then the body aches set in. I woke one morning to severe pains in my arms and shins. The body pains with the fatigue made for miserable living. And just when I thought it could get no worse, I felt like an elephant moved in and sat on my chest.
This was the valley of the shadow of death and yet I knew this was nowhere close to the experiences others were having. I was managing from home. I was struggling to breathe, but I was breathing on my own. With no pump and no doctors to see, all I could do was hope and pray and cry and reach for that next breath.This was my Holy Week journey, walking through days of fever and fatigue. And Holy Week was the place where new life started creeping back into my body, as the fever broke. My temperature started dropping. I was staying awake for longer periods. I was eating one meal per day, and then more.
The tomb is empty this Easter. The body of the risen Savior is long gone. God’s love made manifest among us - in us and through us - is present. Across the world, that tomb is not empty. My father and others have succumbed to this virus, occupying new burial places. Morgues are backed up. There is deep mourning as the names reflect our loved ones, our friends, and our family.
The empty tomb is an invitation to sit through the pain of our humanity. I was still alive. For me the tomb was empty. Death, dying, cycles of grief and pain are always with us. We continue to count the dead. We continue to hear the stories of the sick among us. This is the valley of the shadow of death. COVID-19 has meted out a new reality. One where death visits often. And with each visitation, we can experience God present with us once again as we move the valley.
On this resurrection Sunday, I am thankful for life. I am different having wrestled with COVID-19 with my family and made it through my own illness. For this I grieve. I am different, having lost another parent and now, as wellness comes back, so does the pain of loss. We are all different.
I am unapologetic that I have nothing to celebrate. I will linger at the cross and wait for healing to come from this brokenness. I will linger with the bitterness of loss, and memories of loved ones who gave a lot and whose lives were cause for celebration. I have not gotten there yet. I have no alleluias. I am still walking through the valley of the shadow of death with the millions who are sick, struggling and mourning. I am not afraid because the possibilities of the tomb point to new life and new hope, even as death lingers through the valley.
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, Associate General Minister, United Church of Christ