The stress of COVID-19 has a lot of people wondering about the possibility of a “new normal” in the near future. What does this mean for Christians who continue to celebrate Jesus conquering sin and death with his death and resurrection? Where is hope to be found in the midst of restrictions, physical distancing, job loss, grief, and fear of illness and death?
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, calls us to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, (and) persevere in prayer,” (12:12). Hope, as a key virtue, is the habit to be mastered during the Easter season, the habit of waiting and praying with joy, patience, and perseverance. The Easter season is a celebration of the “new normal” brought about by Christ, meaning new life and new freedom. St. Paul, whose life and ministry magnify this process, gives us an insight into the “new normal” to which Christians are called.
St. Paul was a Greek speaking Pharisee who happened to be a Roman citizen. He did not meet Jesus in the flesh, but is known to have persecuted his followers, denying Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. His conversion experience on the road to Damascus turned his life upside down, leading him to abandon his former life and embrace his “new normal” in Christ. He went on three great missions, proclaiming Christ to the Gentile world.
About 23 years into his public ministry, St. Paul had the courage to write: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but, it is Christ who lives in me,” (Galatians 2:19b-20a). He went on to write that he lives by faith “in the Son of God who loved” him and “gave his life” for him. Revitalized by the new life he received due to the grace of Jesus Christ, St. Paul is strikingly aware that he has become a new creation!
If we do not believe that we can become a new creation, “then Christ died for nothing,” (Galatians 2:21).
His “new normal” was brought about by his new life in Christ. In early accounts of his life and in his own words, he is introduced to us as a blasphemer, a man of pride and arrogance, and an accomplice to murder. An encounter with the light of Christ, a light that casts out darkness and falsehood, blinded him, causing him to lose his physical sight, allowing God to restore his spiritual sight. The power of Christ’s light caused him to be submissive, trusting and still, allowing for Christ’s grace to work in him, disturbing his conscience and facilitating an encounter with the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah whom he rejected and persecuted in his attack on Christians. Jesus chose a persecutor of Christians, working through him, despite his past actions and weaknesses, to be the greatest missionary of all time.
The call to live as another Christ, however, did not spare him from any suffering or trials. Throughout his missionary experience, St. Paul went on to suffer like Christ, (2 Corinthians 11:16-33), proclaiming, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18). No doubt, St. Paul had hope for his future and ours.
Only the grace of Jesus Christ and cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit can convert a “man of violence” to a man with a life giving mission, abandoning his old ways and becoming a new creation. He allowed Christ to live in him, making him another Christ, proclaiming the Good News and celebrating the gift of authentic freedom that comes with doing God’s will—loving God, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, (Matthew 22: 36-40).
His “new normal” consisted of transformation and a great mission rooted in courage and persistence. He exchanged the lie of a life enslaved by fear for the truth of God; unlike some of the inhabitants of the communities he visited who had exchanged the truth of God “for a lie,” (Romans 1:25). God refined St. Paul, not depriving him of his great zeal and passion for the truth, but rather redirecting that zeal and passion for the expansion of God’s kingdom. His strengths were disciplined and surrendered to magnify God, encouraging him to examine his weaknesses with humility and increasing his trust in God’s mercy.
If we do not believe that God can forgive us and use us to magnify Him, “then Christ died for nothing,” (Galatians 2:21).
Christ did not die for us to continue to be anxious and afraid, surrendering to an uncertain future without any hope for restoration and authentic freedom. He did not die for us so that we can remain enslaved by fear or by any crisis. Later, in the same epistle, St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” (5:1).
This means God desires authentic freedom for us, achieved through cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s grace. Cooperating with God’s will and the power of the Holy Spirit should yield fruit: joy, peace, love, generosity, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, and gentleness, (5:22). Allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, we will be led to interior freedom, including inner peace, helping us to be still and trust God and His providence. Jesus taught us the only fruitful response to a crisis or emotional storm is to be still, to not rock the boat with frenzy and irrational responses. Take some time to read Psalm 37 and Psalm 46, especially verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” Similarly, God reassured St. Teresa of Avila that if she took care of his business, he would take care of hers. Do God’s will and be still in your spirit, waiting for the fruits of the Holy Spirit to be made manifest in your surroundings.
“New normal” for Christians cannot mean more fear, anxiety, and despair. We cannot settle for darkness, diminishing our value and worth. During the Easter season we celebrate Christ’s light overcoming the darkness, vindicating all pain and suffering, reminding us of the great power of the Holy Spirit to create newness and hope. Celebrating the assurance of God’s protection, the Psalmist proclaimed, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber,” (Psalm 121:3). If we truly believe that faith can move mountains (Matthew 17:20), we cannot accept anything that is contrary to God’s will, which is illuminated by the presence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Examine the outcome of any decisions, and discern whether the fruit is life giving or not. God’s plan for our lives includes our restoration, not our enslavement. Faith in God’s plan for us sustains us during these difficult days.
Faith—believing, knowing, and trusting God—is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith gives us access to the unseen, preparing us with hope for God’s victory over death and darkness.
We cannot accept a “new normal” that does not respect the dignity of the person, nor offer any hope for the restoration of the balance in our lives, care for the vulnerable, public safety, and the freedom to worship publicly, even if some restrictions continue. God loves us too much to leave us where we are at, without a plan for full recovery of our faith experience and safety for all. In one of his statements on COVID-19, Cardinal Collins writes: “It is important to follow carefully the provisions of health authorities, but it is also essential that our spiritual life be enhanced and strengthened all the more during this crisis.”
The whole person requires spiritual strengthening during these difficult times. Sacraments feed our souls, offering nourishment and spiritual strengthening, encouraging us to go out and address the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ, people who are suffering, homeless, unemployed, addicted, sick and lonely.
Physical care administered by spiritual care providers for the “least of these” is just as important as mental health support because we provide care for the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. Christians have no choice but to care for their neighbors, addressing all their spiritual and physical needs. On this topic, St. John Chrysostom asks: “Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Then do not disdain Him when you see Him in rags. After having honored Him in Church with silken vestments, do not leave Him to die of cold outside for lack of clothing. For it is the same Jesus Who says, “This is My Body” and Who says “I was hungry but you would not feed Me. Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.” Homily 50, On St. Matthew Ch.3. A “new normal” that does not allow for this level of care contradicts the Christian vocation.
Recently, Italian Bishops declared, “It should be clear to all that the commitment to serving the poor, (which is) so significant to this emergency, stems from a faith that must be nourished at its source especially the sacramental life.” We must remain hopeful that there is a way to fully comply with all health guidelines and regulations, while not compromising respect for freedom of worship and ongoing spiritual support.
The “new normal” experienced by St. Paul and countless other saints and mystics, is the acceptance of this truth. We must remain hopeful, waiting and praying with joy, patience, and perseverance.
If we accept despair, discouragement, anxiety and fear as our “new normal” “then Christ died for nothing,” (Galatians 2:21).
Josephine Lombardi © 2020
April 29, 2020, Feast of St. Catherine of Siena