Cristina Arcidiacono, Baptist Union of Italy
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
What I share with you today is a version of a reflection, which I recently offered to the weekly magazine of evangelical churches in Italy, by the title Riforma. Reflecting on the predicament of churches in the current pandemic, it occurred to me that our being together in this particular time is a new way of embodying church, and in a broader sense, an opportunity of deepening our vocation to be a church through life-giving relationships.
This month marks one year since the first lockdown.
"Psychology of relapse" – is how Romano Madera, philosopher and psychoanalyst, describes this time of pandemic. Since March of last year, when all programs, commitments, travels and schools were suspended, we have shared a tacit commitment to give the best of ourselves, to put energy into solidarity, to live and treat time in a different way, to try to turn the restrictions into an opportunity for new attitudes and new emotional postures. The churches, especially those in the areas most affected at the beginning, have organised themselves creatively. Collaboration, interdenominational co-operation and ecumenism have characterised the various initiatives: daily biblical meditations to be sent via WhatsApp, online worship services (which then became an opportunity for forwarding thoughts of encouragement to family and friends), common reflections on the possibilities of conversion that the time of the pandemic could offer individuals and churches – so that we could pay attention to the human hand on creation, to the dynamics of injustice at work and to the inequalities that have emerged glaringly.
Then the summer came. And it gave us the hope that it could bring a new breath of life. Instead, it turned out to be a "relapse", this time even more extensive, involving the national territory and beyond, the whole area of Europe and the entire world. Just as the relapse from a physical illness, the relapse has brought the common reactions of tiredness, of dissatisfaction, of anguish. What was all this for?
From October onwards, in Italy, after a new and hopeful reopening, the churches with the largest and most ventilated premises were able to meet again, in reduced numbers, trying to re-imagine the present and the future; while churches with small rooms and reduced ventilation remained on digital platforms, looking for the most inclusive ways to gather with as many sisters and brothers, around the Word of God.
We go on as we can, perhaps a little more alone, with great expenditure of energy, waiting for ... for what, exactly? What are we waiting for? For everything to end? For things to go back to the way there were before?
"I am the Resurrection and the life," says Jesus in the Gospel of John. We live in the time of the Risen One. The tiring and at times lacerating daily life calls us not so much to survive, to save whatever we can, to succumb to the temptation “to retreat to private life", but to recognise that the Resurrection is our promise and our vocation; and this Resurrection is renewed for us every day. As individual believers and as communities of faith we have the certainty that the light of the Resurrection is what allows us to live our life to the fullest, to integrate lamentations, pain, longings and difficulties, even death, in that truth, which is the love of God in Christ for each one of us.
For me this means listening to the voices of others, looking at each generation for the gift they bring and the gift they are, recognizing the value of our spiritual relationships, making our individual homes places for community prayer, where everyone although at physical distance can feel united and bound by the Spirit of life.
Indeed, succeeding in keeping our community as loving and united as ever is the best revenge on the relapse syndrome! Considering ourselves part of a larger community, which thinks, prays, acts and does not yield to individualistic temptations, but opens itself to the world, is the victory: that either in presence and/or distance, we can cultivate the possibilities of sharing solidarity, of welcoming each other, of serving each other, of recognizing each other … even in a small rectangle on the screen. Together, regardless of the medium, the place and the physical distance, we can nurture life for and with each other. The pandemic, or the relapse, has not won on us!
"My days are in your hands," says Psalm 31. More than with words of resignation, the psalmist turns to God who, like a midwife, holds my days in his hands, the days of each and every one of us. The Lord gives birth to my day, one after the other, and, like the expert hands of a midwife, he washes it, removes the confusing varnish, like a sculptor removes the chaotic mass from it. "O Lord, let it not be confused,” the psalm proceeds. In the moment I receive time as a gift from the hands of God, the whole attitude to what is happening can and does change!
What does this mean to us? I would like to suggest that the God who holds our time in his hands is calling us to Hope.
Living the gift that is the church, the community, this reality that does not belong to us and of which we are a part of, beyond any wall or stable, a reality open to the world, a connection that will never fail. Risking Hope is the certainty that God has our days in his hands, hands that support, that lift those who are shaky, that comfort those who are afraid. Hands that carry the cross within themselves and announce the resurrection, which call to new and full life, which is already before us.
Lord, thank you for being among us, thank you because your Spirit holds this time and this space, in which our physical distances become a common table that can hold change, that can stand challenges, that can plan projects and invite reflections -- for the present and for the future.
Thank you for encouraging us to walk together, listening to each other, nurturing mutual respect, helping us to recognize your daughters and your sons – wherever they might be.
We pray for your world, for the many who suffer alone and for the churches that welcome, support, accompany and console.
Be present with your spirit among us also today, so that everything we do can be a gift of gratitude and an expression of your love for us.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Cristina Arcidiacono is a Baptist theologian and pastor in Milan, Italy, and a member of the Board of IBTS Amsterdam. At a recent IBTS Board Meeting she shared this profound spiritual reflection on a year of the pandemic. With Cristina’s permission we share it more widely here.