Finding Hope in a Covid World
Homily for All Souls Day
November 2, 2020
When I met with the Confirmation class for their rehearsal, I pointed out to them that, in Hebrew, the same word is used for both breath and spirit (Confirmation being associated with the Holy Spirit). I shared with them the ancient account of the creation of the human person, an account we find at the beginning of the Bible. The story is based on very ancient, common-sense observation: when a person is breathing, there is life; when there is no more breathing, the person is dead. And so the story reminds us that for us human beings there is an earthly part, sharing in the limitations of the earth (represented by the human “form” made from the clay of the ground). But there is also a divine aspect to our being, indicated by the fact that God breathes into the human form, and that is the divine action that brings life. God breathes life into us, we are created by God’s Spirit/Breath. What this means, I told those about to be confirmed, is that God wants to be, and in fact is, as close to us, as every breath we take.
During this horrible year of the pandemic, we’ve had a lot to deal with, a lot to process; and so, many of us feel overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. In addition to Covid-19, on May 25th of this year George Floyd had the knee of a police officer on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. A video that went viral brought about massive protests and demonstrations. This incident in Minneapolis brought back memories of another incident, on July 17, 2014, when in New York City Eric Garner was put in a chokehold, bringing him to repeatedly say, “I can’t breathe.” The life breath left Eric Garner and George Floyd, and they were no more.
One of the frightening aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic is that in serious cases those affected cannot breathe, and many are forced to be put on ventilators. In addition, because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, those taken to hospitals face incredible loneliness, many dying without their family at their side.
Those who have studied crucifixion, the method used by the Romans to execute Jesus, make the point that, ultimately, when a person becomes too weak to hold themselves up, the weight of the body causes suffocation, much like a chokehold, a knee on the neck, or the coronavirus pandemic.
In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the gospel of John, we read that Jesus “bowed his head and delivered over his spirit” (John 19:30). Here we find the double meaning of the ancient Hebrew word: in dying Jesus took his last breath, and gave the Holy Spirit. In that divine breath, that gift of the Holy Spirit, God is as close to us as every breath we take!
On this All Souls Day, when we commemorate and pray for our loved ones, the faithful departed, we do so in this unique year of the pandemic—a sickness that has affected people of every age, of every nation, and of all faiths. At the same time, it has revealed the disparities that exist in our society—disparities of race, of wealth, of social status. But as we do each year, we gather to pray, to be there for those who have lost loved ones, and to have our faith and hope rekindled.
We remember that on the cross Jesus could not breathe. We remember that except for a very courageous few, he was practically alone, for many who loved him either could not or would not be with him. We remember that he was a victim of injustice—the injustice of race, and culture, and social status.
And so, on this All Souls Day, we place all those who could not breathe into the loving embrace of the One who handed over his Spirit and loved us all to his very last breath. On this All Souls Day, we place those who died without family or friends into the loving arms of the One who knew what it felt like to be apart from those for whom he gave so much. On this unique All Souls Day we place all our beloved dead into the arms of the One whose life breath is eternal, whose Spirit brings life out of death, and whose embrace welcomes our departed loved ones into his heavenly kingdom. And we pray, “Dear Jesus, may they know the joy of seeing your face, and the warmth of your loving embrace, now and forever.”