The COVID-19 pandemic has been a cruel reminder that we are far more fragile, individually and collectively, than most of us imagine when times are good. It takes surprisingly little—a sudden shift of tectonic plates, a new submicroscopic particle—to turn a life or a whole society upside down. Modern wealth and technology foster illusions of security and control, but we are still subject to countless life-threatening risks. Some we’re aware of, some we aren’t. As science conquers one disease, another emerges; and in the time it takes for science to catch up—the time we’re all living through now—thousands or millions of lives may be lost. Yes, by all means, trust science (and be grateful to the scientists), but don’t imagine it will ever rid the world of mortal harms.
One function of the world’s great religious traditions is to remind us of our fragility and to prepare us for death—our own deaths and the deaths of those we love. These traditions may disagree about what, if anything, follows death, but they all agree on its centrality to life. To live in denial of death, they teach us, is no better than to live in constant fear of it.
A few weeks before the full scale of the current crisis became evident, we lined up in churches to be reminded of our mortality: You are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Now, in the Easter season, we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, but not his escape from it: he triumphed by “trampling death by death”—that is, by dying. Resurrected, he promises us an eternal life beyond death, but he doesn’t promise to spare us the experience of dying or the pain of bereavement. Instead, he shares it with us, thereby investing it with a new meaning. This is why Christians can mourn without despair, and now is a time for mourning.
It is also a time for anger. While all human lives and communities are fragile, some are more fragile than others. People all over the world are now learning the hard way that they were much more vulnerable than they should have been because of bad political decisions, or feckless indecision.