Symbol of the Kingdom: The Problem of Pain in a Time of Pandemic

With the rapid spread of Covid-19 shutting down a good chunk of world affairs and affecting the lives of people around the globe, the topic of God and his role in “natural evil” comes back to the fore of philosophical conversation. When a disease hits or a volcano explodes or fires rage, people often either blame God for it, or indeed speculate if it’s some type of curse from God. Failing either of those, they see it as proof that life is ultimately meaningless.

I believe that such realities in our jagged world, and the reasons behind them, are usually more subtle than any of these options would have us believe. Yes, there is precedent for the concept of punishment for sin through natural means, but since Mankind has been sinning since nearly the onset of our existence, and Nature has gone about her own tumultuous patterns of generation and destruction even before that, both seem to be an inherent part of the struggled sphere in which we dwell.

However, I don’t believe that God completely throws out the autonomy and natural processes of the world which he created by dictating left and right the way it flows. In other words, yes, much is left to “chance”, or more precisely, a series of innumerable factors determined by the course of nature or active participants with free will such as ourselves. He allows for this level of freedom, while at the same time His providence sustains everything that is, even in its various states of imperfection and brokenness.

Since God is outside of time and space, He knows the ways in which all things are going to play out in this time-space reality, on both cosmic and personal levels. He permits it, the very foundations of it that allow for both good and the bad causes and effects. And these foundations we find are necessary for the dynamics of this universe to be maintained. The reasons may be beyond our mortal ken, but as people of faith, we must believe that this universe is a story worth being told, is worth unfolding according to its own distinct and jagged nature.

What do we do, then, when everything seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket, as many people feel during this time of pandemic? Perhaps we are all threads in the weave, and cannot yet see the tapestry being woven, but that doesn’t comfort us in the face of pain and suffering which is indeed part and parcel with the air we breathe. We are both finite and infinite, and the strange combination terrifies us. We cry out to God, and all too often feel dust in our mouths, and our lips cracked and bleeding.

We feel forsaken and abandoned in this cosmic drama, and cannot help but wonder if God cares more for the big picture than for our little pictures, if He is not merely using us as means to an end, as pawns on a chess board. Perhaps that would not be hard to believe of the all-powerful essence of reality. Surely He has better things to do than focus on the fates of intelligent monkeys who have a habit of expecting too much from life.

But we are desperate for more than that. We are desperate to realize that the immortality in us is grounded in love, yes, between each of our souls and the Source. That is what we seek, and that is why suffering on behalf of the “big picture” torments us like jilted lovers. We desire more than perhaps is reasonable, and yet that fathomless yearning is perhaps a fragment of heaven within our souls, crying out for union with the rest.

Perhaps the very suffering of “chance”, and the terror of it, is the hidden secret of love, for God is in it all, yes, utterly abased at the heart of it all. As a Christian, I believe God took up a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ and made Himself subject to that very form of “chance” which He preordained to be possible, that human beings should murder their God. He died from being human, just as we all will. Whether young or old, quietly or violently, we all meet our end from our own physical mortality.

Christ is the pinnacle of the intermingling of mortality and immortality, through his human and divine natures, and it enables Him to be castigated from Himself, stretched out and suffocated. It is the heart of the Trinitarian mystery that allows Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” It is this same mystery that allows the font of living water to beg for drink, and breath of life to be extinguished, and the sacred heart to be pierced and pour out.

So we find God is not a passive observer nor indifferent dictator, but rather the very mystery of evil that seems to separate Him from us actually brings Him to us. We find a glimmer of a promise that every evil, and every pain, is daring us to enter into depth of the darkness and yet find God there. This is why the whole world is like a little Good Friday, and all time is like the 3 o’clock hour. When we’re in Christ, we’re in it all, and we keep our vigil till the dawn of our rebirth.

For many Catholics, this Lent has been a barren one, barred from the comforts of the sacraments, as masses around the world are being canceled. Even worse for many, including myself, is the cancellation of the liturgies of Holy Week. We feel cut off from that outpouring of God’s grace, and yet in this very separation, we are more truly living the Christian life, more truly embodying Christ’s living flesh and running blood that we received in the Eucharist. We are cast out, just as creation itself had to be “cast out” of the eternity of God even to be created.

We feel cast out as humanity was “cast out” from the Eden of our intimacy with the divine after falling into sin and making ourselves “gods” of pride-poisoned apples. Yet Christ has been cast out, and thus He conquers. The angel that stands at Eden’s entrance appears as the great curtain of the Temple, and the death of God tears it open. Every heart will be torn open and read. That is the sign of the cross, the Kingship of Christ. That is the right of conquest He claims.

St. John Chrysostom reflected: “The Cross is the symbol of the kingdom. I call Christ ‘King’ precisely because I see Him crucified, for it is the mark of a king to die for his subjects. He sacrificed His life, and that is why I call Him ‘King.’ Remember me, Lord, in Your kingdom.”

Christ dies in all His humanity, and rises in all His divinity. And so we who share the life He gives us shall die in all our mortality, and rise in all our immortality. Heaven and Earth are two halves of a whole, a shattered egg, shot through with God’s essence, the shell, the white, the yoke…the Creator, the Redeemer, the Guide. And they shall one day be rejoined in what is Biblically termed “The New Jerusalem”. This is the great story, which the universe cannot contain, but a tomb, and a wounded heart, can, only for both to burst open.

And so this is our destiny, our great commandment: to love one another in tangled tumult of this world, to pour ourselves out for our neighbor, especially in times of trial, in sickness, in affliction. We must not hoard, nor scheme, nor turn our back on the most vulnerable in our society. We must pray that we receive the grace to grow as saints in this taste of purgatory we are passing through together. Perhaps this very thing is a clear indication why a jagged world is necessary: how else could our love be refined?

Christ’s suffering is our guidepost, and we who unite ourselves to Him “make up what is lacking” in the cross. Indeed, it might be said the Passion “leaves room” for each individual to share in it, so that all the groanings of this broken and mending world are captured in the groanings of Christ in His agony. If scar wounds are upon our palms, then we appear as we should. We bear the emblems of our sovereign good.

We will wait for the day when all prophecies will be fulfilled, and the dawn breaks, and the world is reborn, for the seed has already been sown, in time and out of time, and we will trust in the words of our dying God, our dying King, our dying Brother:

“It is accomplished!”

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