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Resurrection love: Caring for bodies this Easter

This Easter, I am focused on a little body. It’s been a while since I’ve raised four children; I’m out of practice caring for small people. But now as I babysit my 1-year-old granddaughter, I’m back to feeding, changing diapers and wiping goo off a little face. These are tasks I’m eager and willing to do, because my granddaughter is easily lovable.

It was not as fun or easy to care for my grandmother and my parents as their bodies grew old and their minds fuzzy. Their bodies suffered — from mobility issues, incontinence, dementia, pain and other indignities of aging. Caring for them in their frailty required me to dig deeper into my love, patience and respect for them.

My experiences bring to mind the story at the heart of Alice McDermott’s “The Ninth Hour.” As a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, Sister St. Saviour and other nuns in the novel serve an Irish American neighborhood in early-20th-century Brooklyn. It is a parish of those who are poor, abandoned, shut-in, unloved, widowed, orphaned.

These Nursing Sisters practice the fully embodied resurrection love of Jesus — sometimes despite the church —  touching wounds, feeding and healing bodies, offering compassion for broken minds and hearts.

It is profoundly loving — but to Greek and Roman ears, profoundly troubling — to believe that the fullness of God can dwell in a human body. Why would the perfection of divinity deign to deal with such messiness?

Jesus knew what it was to be in pain, to be lonely and to grieve. His healing ministries tended bodies young and old, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics, lepers, and those with infirm spirits. He made it his business to touch society’s cast-asides.

Through his own incarnation, Jesus endured the horror of crucifixion, the agonizing death of a criminal, an outcast. But through this final physical act of sacrifice, Jesus is resurrected and promises each of us resurrection of the body, joy and eternal life.

On Easter, he overcomes death to offer new life and the love that transforms our suffering world. Our task is not to flee embodiment but to fully embrace it with the divine love that he modeled for us.

While the sisters in McDermott’s novel are not saints, they exemplify Christ’s Easter love, a sensory offering of sacrifice.

Their story is set in crumbling tenement houses, seedy bars, funeral homes and sour-smelling alleys. In the nitty-gritty of their ministry, the nuns change diapers for shut-ins, shave the faces of old men, cleanse wounds, clean up bloody vomit, birth babies in dirty apartments, and diagnose ringworm, edema and anemia. They comfort the lonely and the bereaved.

At 64, Sister St. Saviour deals with her own arthritis, swollen legs and constant need to pee. Yet she, like the other sisters, ministers to her flock daily, walking for blocks in the cold and damp New York air to serve those confined to their beds.

“It would be a different church if I were running it!” she declares at one point.

Sister St. Saviour is funny, brave, compassionate, realistic and unafraid to break rigid church rules. When a young man named Jim loses his job and commits suicide, she instructs the nuns to disguise his final act so that his body can be buried in the church cemetery. The sisters know how important care of the body is, even in death. To Sister St. Saviour, mercy is more important than church dogma.

That Jim is afforded a Christian burial comforts Annie and Sally, his widow and young daughter. The nuns give them work in the convent’s basement laundry, a place of cleanliness, structure and protection. Sally has a peaceful childhood, raised lovingly by the sisters and her mother, and eventually decides to take orders herself.

But on an overnight Pullman train from Pennsylvania Station to the order of sisters in Chicago, where she will explore her vocation, Sally encounters an ugly side to humanity, facing sexual advances and a swindler, and witnessing child abuse, fear and evil.

She knows that her vocation is being tested and wants to respond mercifully like the nuns would, but she is overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of her fellow travelers. Sally can’t imagine loving people she doesn’t like or trust, people who mean to do her harm.

She is going to have to give her life to others, she realizes, “in the name of the crucified Christ and His loving mother.”

She remembers that one of the nuns, Sister Jeanne, said that “love stood before brutality in that moment on Golgotha and love was triumphant. Love applied to suffering, as Sister Illuminata put it: like a clean cloth to a seeping wound.”

The train ride reveals to Sally that she wants to offer only a sanitized love. She wants to wear a clean, starched habit and wants a clean cloth, “immaculate and pure,” to place against humanity’s wounds. She wants to pray the hours, speak softly and offer relief to a wretched world.

But she also wants, “in some equal, more furious way, not to be mocked for it; not to be fooled.” When she arrives at the station in Chicago, she tells the waiting nuns, “I’ve thought better of it.”

Like Jesus, Sally is expected to love the unlovable — and she is unable to do it. The demands of Christly love and sacrifice prove too much.

Resurrection love is not repulsed by the realities of bodies, as Sister St. Saviour knows. Rather, it continues Jesus’ work of touching the untouchable, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and caring for those cast aside by society. Such redemptive love restores human dignity and respect and believes in the resurrection of the body, even if those who offer it must sometimes endure scorn.

This Easter, how can we practice the realities of love? Not an idealistic, clean-cloth love but the earthy, embodied love of Jesus that restores and heals bodies and requires forgiveness, humility and sacrifice. Which bodies need our care? The incarnated and resurrected Christ has shown us the way.

Was it only Feb. 26 when this Lent began? Was it really only a bit more than a month ago that I invited the faithful to the observance of a holy Lent, marked them with ashes and said those ancient words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Ash Wednesday feels a lifetime and a world away from where we are now. Maybe you can relate.

It was only five weeks ago that members of my congregation met to plan our Holy Week and Easter services. At that point, we had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be doing those services the way we’d always done them.

It was only four weeks ago that we gathered for a “normal” Sunday morning schedule in our beautiful chapel. Service at 9 a.m., children’s and adult formation at 10 a.m., another service at 11 a.m. We had no way of knowing that that Sunday would be our last normal Sunday morning for an extended period.

It was only three-and-a-half weeks ago that priests in my diocese received the directive to suspend the common cup at communion, to serve only the bread to the faithful gathered. I said Mass that way exactly once before the next wave of restrictions set in; it was only three weeks ago that we were instructed to suspend all in-person worship and cancel all church activities for two weeks. New CDC recommendations. Social distancing. No gatherings of more than 50, then 25, then 10.

It was only three Sundays ago that we held our first online Sunday morning service. I told the congregation, gathered on the virtual meeting platform Zoom that I did not want to worship online for so many weeks that we would get good at it. But then it was only 12 days ago that the CDC revised those guidelines again. Now, all in-person worship and all church activities are canceled through May 16, the outer limit of the necessary eight-week window. Hospital and home visits were suspended as well, lest the clergy carry the virus from person to person, house to house.

Grief and uncertainty washed over me, over us as a congregation. How will we provide pastoral care for our congregation in this moment — in particular, for the sick, the dying and the grieving? How will we offer last rites, funerals and burials? How will we mourn together and remind each other of the hope that is within us?

There was grief in a different way for those services we had planned for Holy Week, for Easter; they would now have to be translated to Zoom. What would we do without a Palm Sunday procession, a Maundy Thursday footwashing, Good Friday Stations of the Cross? And what is Easter without brass and that feeling when the whole congregation joins together in singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”? What is Easter without Eucharist, without that community declaration, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”

As a people of faith, we are confronted with a paradox. At a time when we need this community the most, the practices of being community that we have known and relied on — or, dare we say, that we have even taken for granted — now have to be suspended or adapted to slow the spread of COVID-19. The orienting rituals of our faith will change this year because we simply don’t have the choice to do what we’ve always done.

It was only 10 days ago that the lay leadership of my congregation gathered on Zoom to discuss all of this. Freed from having to debate whether or not we would have in-person worship, meetings or activities, they brought their creative energy to the more pressing questions: How will we support and sustain our community now? How will we be the body of Christ for and with one another in this moment?

By the end of the meeting, those lay leaders committed to calling every member of the congregation and writing reports of those conversations to share with each other, documenting every prayer and practical concern named. They would hold virtual dinners for the congregation every Monday and Thursday night, inviting our people to find social connection even as they maintained physical distance. They would host contemplative prayer online on Wednesday nights for those needing a centering midweek ritual.

Over the last 10 days, they have done all of these things. In some ways, that’s the gift of a smaller congregation. In other ways, it’s the gift of a community that knows it needs to be community now.

Their leadership has inspired others. During our Sunday Zoom worship, one member offered to teach yoga on Facebook Live multiple days a week, another to teach body prayer. Folks offered to buy groceries for our shut-ins and others who worry about going to the supermarket. The musicians offered to send concert links to anyone missing music in worship or the arts in their lives. And for those who are experiencing tech challenges, several people offered to help them navigate Zoom, Facebook and Google Hangouts.

God knows what the weeks ahead will hold — it was just days ago that stay-at-home orders were issued for the counties where our members live. Yet if what has been is prologue, then what will come, I am confident, will be more grace-filled experiences of real community. We will continue to find creative ways to be community for and with one another even in this season when we are physically apart. We have to. It is a witness of hope in the midst of fear, peace in the midst of panic and faith in the midst of uncertainty.

It is the promise that at the end of the fast comes a feast where all are welcome.