What are we to do while our worlds are undone? Every day, some version of this question lingers in the background as my wife and I struggle to stitch together working at home and caring for our two small children. As I have stumbled through Lent and Easter, the earliest followers of Jesus have been welcome companions for journeying through the landscape of COVID-19. While some of Jesus’s disciples offer comfort in their confusion, the women who supported his ministry give counsel in their care.
Following the death of Jesus, two of the disciples tried to process what was going on while taking a long walk. Other disciples, afraid of the world around them, huddled in a locked house. What they had seen unfold on Good Friday was evidence enough that they should not venture near others.
I find comfort in the confusion and fear of disciples later known for their faithful witness across the Mediterranean. COVID-19 has cut me off from so many people. As I take long walks and shelter in place, I am glad to find connection with these early followers of Jesus.
For counsel, though, I have to look to a different group of disciples.
When I attend carefully to the death of Jesus, I discover that a few of his followers frame that world-shattering event with intimate attention and care. On Good Friday, we find a group of women watching the agony of Jesus’s crucifixion and silently waiting as he was buried. On Sunday, we find some of them again at daybreak: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” bring spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus (Mark 16:1).
These small acts of attentive care seem unproductive. They do not prevent the death of Jesus, nor do they bring him back to life. And yet as these women remain with the dying and dead body of Jesus, they witness to “truths that are in danger of being covered over and buried,” as Shelly Rambo says in her book Spirit and Trauma (48). What guidance do they give us?
These followers of Jesus stand out for how they attend to Jesus in his suffering and death. They do not avert their eyes, but instead care even when they see no hope for the future. By attending and caring in the midst of disorienting death and destruction, these women hold one another and the dead body of Jesus as their worlds are undone.
In and of itself, this does not create new life. But, to draw from Elaine Scarry’s description of health care in The Body in Pain, it does “repair the ground for the return of the world itself” (34). When our forms of life are disintegrating, this kind of holding creates space for the unexpected knitting together of renewed life.
These practices of attending and care till the soil of our life together, preparing us for the emergence of new ways of being in the world. Will our future be one defined by fear and isolation, or one crafted through solidarity and mutual care? I do not know, but following these women prepares me for the latter.
How will I be able to perceive green shoots cracking through our COVID-19 landscape? These same practices of attending and care brought the women to Jesus’s tomb, where they recognize that new life has erupted within the world. When I turn in on myself and away from others, I am much further away from such places of recognition.
Most of the other disciples thought these women were telling an “idle tale” and dismissed their account out of hand (Luke 24:11). The witness of these women challenges how we practice listening to one another – and to whom we are listening.
Attending, caring, and listening may seem like small practices in light of the monumental challenges we face today. But it is through this everyday work that we are to discern and pursue a new common life. For example, people practicing mutual aid through sewing masks, shopping for groceries, or securing bail funds are cultivating the solidarity needed for reshaping our life together. In less public ways, prayer and contemplation can draw us together even as we are isolated, as Julian of Norwich taught us over six hundred years ago. With no assurance of what is to come in our post-pandemic world, we must learn to listen to and follow examples like these.
Shelly Rambo recently wrote that witnesses to the resurrection “refuse to be disconnected.” As I meditate on these followers of Jesus, as I connect with their witness, they refuse to leave me alone. Given the forces that are driving our lives apart – forces that existed long before the outbreak of COVID-19 – we are in desperate need of this refusal to be disconnected.
What does it mean to walk with these followers of Jesus during COVID-19? Amidst the loss of so many things, it means holding one another in ways that refuse disconnection. We can admit our confusion and fear to one another, trusting that we are in good company. We can attend to suffering amidst the roar of death and destruction. We can care for one another in ways that prepare for the world’s return. We can listen carefully to others who are telling us of new ways of being in the world. And we can hope that when new life emerges, we will be given the grace to see it and follow.