A few days ago, waiting to go through security in Tel Aviv airport, I watched the maneuverings of the young man before me in the queue. As we shuffled forward, he always had a suitcase five feet in front of him and behind, so that no one could get near him. He may have been wise, but it was a powerful symbol of what the virus means for millions of people: isolation, keeping one’s distance. The very presence of others may be a threat, as one may be for them.
Isolation can be more terrible than death. We must all die, and for many it comes as a welcome relief. But isolation saps our very humanity: grandparents being isolated from their grandchildren, lovers separated from each other. We are touched into life by each other, from tiny touches to making love. A character in a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer says: “Touching him was always so important to me. It was something I lived for. I never could explain why. Little, nothing touches. My fingers against his shoulder. The outsides of our thighs touching as we squeezed together on the bus.” When the coronavirus threatens, life-giving touch might become deadly.
The evening before I flew, I went to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and entered the tomb where Jesus is supposed to have lain for three days. The crux of the Christian faith is a man who died in utter isolation. He was lifted up on the cross above the crowd, beyond touch, made into a naked object. He seemed even to have felt separated from his Father, and his last words, according to Mark and Matthew’s gospels, were: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In that moment he embraced more than just our deaths. He made his very own the loneliness that we all endure sometimes and that tens of millions live today.
On the night before he died, that isolation was already palpable. He gathered his closest friends around him for a last supper. One of them had already sold him to the people who sought his life; Peter, his Rock, was about to deny he even knew him, and most of the others would take to their heels. In this most chilling moment, he did something utterly startling, taking the bread and wine, and saying “this is my body and blood, given for you.”
When the community was falling apart and everyone faced the future alone, he made the promise of a new communion, which would be stronger than betrayal and cowardice and which nothing could destroy, even death. When the churches are shut and public worship ceases for a while, that promise still holds and the gift is still given.
So, yes, this awful virus may cut us off from each other physically, and that is a profound deprivation. But Christians believe that all our loneliness is embraced in a communion that pierces through every barricade. The risen Lord comes through the locked door behind which the disciples had placed themselves in self-isolation and lifts their fear and loneliness.
Even if we cannot get to the Eucharist, we can still enact symbols of communion. In Northern Ireland, a hotel offered to deliver free meals to people stuck inside their homes: “Call us before 1 pm and order a meal. We will deliver dinner to you that evening—there is no charge for food or delivery.” In Italy, people came out onto their balconies and sang to each other. Music reached into every room to embrace people in their loneliness.