One year of limbo. You’ve likely experienced the tension of the in-between before. But usually this isn’t with the entire world. Even though the whole world is apparently in this state of being, the truth is that many of us have never felt so alone. We are all in this together — except, we’re not.
Distanced at no less than six feet from everyone else, solidarity has never felt so lonely.
I imagine this is what it must have felt like for Mary Magdalene between the first Good Friday and Easter. Rather than six feet between her and Jesus, she found herself longing for her Lord who was now metaphorically six-feet-under. She was alone. She was grieving. She couldn’t see a way out of the messy circumstances that had thrusted themselves at her. The ever-present Jesus she had come to know was ever-distant, and so were like her hopes and dreams. So, she wept.
A Pain-Filled Year
In the past year, we’ve experienced personal and collective pain, to varying degrees. The effects of the pandemic differ for each person depending on circumstances. Some folks have suffered with COVID-19. Others, not only suffered, but died. We all mourn to some degree, but the deepest griefs come from those who have lost a loved one to this disease.
For others, socio-economic effects brought another layer of hardship. Black, Indigenous and people of color found themselves in a fight with the disease in disproportionate ways. Many people lost their jobs that were hardly paying the bills before the shutdowns began. For people who might have already been struggling, the battle for survival was taken to whole new heights. Then, we saw the videos. A knee on the neck of one of God’s beloved children led to protests, important conversation and sadly for some, a deeper resistance to seeing the racial inequity that has existed since the first European boats hit land.
COVID-19 came and so did depression. Loneliness. Anxiety. A sense that we are living out a twisted version of Groundhog’s Day, where each day flows into the next as though our lives are stuck on repeat, is unrelenting. Before the pandemic, many of us felt stuck or caught in the “in-between” of circumstances like career moves or completing high school or college. Some already felt the symptoms of a perpetual “senioritis”—longing for graduation into the next big opportunity — and then, the world’s pause button was pressed. A year ago, grade schools across the country shut down, many of which have never gone back to in-person instruction.
The world simply stopped. We were stuck. We were only six feet apart, but ever so alone.
During the past year, many of us have asked: Where is Jesus when life hurts? Is he a far-off God? Where’s the human Jesus, the one who steps into the messes with us in a posture of compassionate humanity?
When Jesus Goes Missing
The moment when Jesus went missing in the gospel accounts is perplexing. This isn’t a surprise to the reader because of the way the author composed these stories. But to the people living within that space and time — people like Mary and her friends, the disciples, and the many others mourning the death of Jesus — despair was real. Jesus was gone for good.
When Mary came to the place where Jesus had been buried, all her deepest desires were contradicted by what she believed to be true: Jesus was dead. In the ground. In that tomb lay all the hopes and dreams she had invested into this almost messiah. But now, those buried hopes had gone missing. His body was gone. She wanted to find Jesus in her most painful of circumstances.
For those of us committed to the way of Jesus, we relate to Mary in this story. We know what it’s like to feel the wrath of a broken world kick us when we’re down. I know that in my most challenging moments, I want Jesus to fix things. When I’m anxious, I want Jesus to take it away. When a loved one is hurt, I want Jesus to heal. When our world is facing a pandemic, I want Jesus to pull off a global miracle that no one can deny (I mean, come on Lord. This would be good marketing for you.) Again, we ask: Where is Jesus?
That question, elusive as it is, makes sense for us to ask as followers of Christ. But, the honest truth is, that no matter how we answer that question theologically, we will never be fully satisfied with the answers. Pain still happened. It is still happening. So what can we do with it?
Stepping Through Pain with Jesus
Recently, my spiritual director shared some helpful reflections on suffering that have kept this past year in perspective. There are three postures that we often have when facing pain.
First, we may say,
Jesus, you fix it.
We direct everything toward God. Then, we may say,
Jesus, join me in my suffering.
Finally, we might learn to join Jesus in His suffering, which connects us to the pain of others. We may say,
Jesus, I want to experience your pain, which includes mine and the suffering of others.
In this stage, we’ve moved from a focus on personal problems to joining Jesus in His own pain as He holds the pain of the world. Jesus steps into the mess and invites us to find counterintuitive hope and healing as we meet Him there.
At our best, following Jesus out of the pandemic might look like this third level of pain. Imagine if the church, rather than being known for the many negative labels it’s had in recent years, was known as a suffering community — with Jesus for the sake of the world? Our suffering, the real struggles of this pandemic, could be a catalyst for reflecting the light and love of God to our culture. What we need is a deeper understanding of the compassionate humanity of Jesus, an empathy that feels the pain of others while offering hope on the other side of it.
In Solidarity with Jesus’ Compassionate Humanity
Eventually, Mary found herself in conversation with a gardener. This gardener asked her, “Why are you crying?” (John 20:13). At first she was nearly offended by the question, but her guard completely dropped when her heart was opened to the fact that it was the resurrected Jesus who was speaking with her. Jesus’ body wasn’t missing. He had been there the whole time. She just couldn’t recognize Him, even when He was closer than six feet away.
An echoing hope reverberated from the empty tomb into the depths of Mary’s soul. That same Jesus who showed up compassionately to her in a garden of tombs is with us now, even when we struggle to recognize him. His compassionate humanity is on offer to us, not only for our sake, but for the sake of all who are holding pain.
One year later, we are weary from standing six feet apart. One year later, we are mourning losses. One year later, Jesus is still here. One year later, Jesus invites us to name our pain and to allow it to connect at a profound level with him and all of our suffering neighbors. Together, one year later, we can step into this next year with profound love and the hope of Easter. Imagine if the church — as a whole — took this posture toward our collective pain. It would change everything. We are not alone. We are united by our pain, with Jesus, and invited to step into the pain of others empowered by Jesus’s compassionate humanity.
This article contains excerpts from Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems Our Pain.
Kurt Willems is the author of Echoing Hope and the founder and pastor of Pangea Church in Seattle. Also a blogger, podcaster and speaker, he maintains the resource website Theology Curator and hosts the Theology Curator podcast. Willems is passionate about taking dense ideas and communicating them in ways that are empowering for people in all walks of life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master's degree in comparative religion from the University of Washington. His wife, Lauren, is a special education teacher. They have two young daughters. For more information, visit www.theologycurator.com.