by David Romanik
Located in Venice, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Basilica of Saint Mary of Health) has been described as “the most beautiful Baroque church in the world”. Completed in 1681, the octagonal building features two impressive bell towers and eight chapels that radiate from the center of the space. The most conspicuous feature of the church, however, is the fact that much of the interior decoration and imagery makes reference to the Black Death. For instance, one of the basilica’s altarpieces is entitled The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague. The reason for this unusual decor is that the Salute, as it is known, was built to celebrate the end of a plague that had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Venetian citizens. The people of Venice were so grateful for the end of the epidemic that they spent decades building a monument to their deliverance, a permanent reminder of what they had lived through as a community.
As we emerge from our own version of the plague, we seem to be taking the opposite approach. A few weeks ago, I noticed a billboard for a local gym. Written in big block letters were the words, “Crush your 2020 goals”. The year “2020”, however, was crossed out, and the billboard was made to look as though someone had written in “2021”. In the same script were the words, “Let’s try this again”. Of course, the idea behind the advertisement was that even though the COVID-19 pandemic may have prevented us from attaining our fitness goals (and, more importantly, paying for a gym membership) in 2020, we have a chance to try again this year. An advertisement for an RV company made this point even more succinctly: “Put 2020 in your rear view mirror”. To my mind, advertisements like these reveal a collective desire to pretend that the pandemic and all of its attendant challenges never happened.
I am sympathetic to this inclination to “move on” from the pandemic. There is something deeply appealing about leaving behind all the tragedy and uncertainty, all the frustration and inconvenience, and picking up where we left off before the world fell apart. As people of faith, however, there are two primary issues with this approach. In the first place, we have a responsibility to grieve: to acknowledge those we have lost and comfort those who are still suffering in the wake of the pandemic. While Heavenly Rest did not suffer the same losses that some communities did, we had several parishioners who perished in the pandemic. Many more of our number contracted COVID-19. Most people have, to some degree, struggled mentally, spiritually, and emotionally in one way or another over the past eighteen months. As the Church, we are called to be present to one another in our grief, and that requires us to acknowledge truthfully what we have endured.
By the same token, we must recognize that we are different people than we were in March of 2020. We have all struggled in various ways, but we have also learned things about ourselves and grown in ways that we could not have previously imagined. As a result, we probably have a new perspective on the places we once frequented, including church. I remember talking to a parishioner who, upon returning to Heavenly Rest for the first time, wondered whether it would still feel like “her church.” Fortunately, it did, but her concern is understandable. So much has changed in recent months: if we do not acknowledge that change, we may be blindsided when we try to return to the places that were once familiar but now feel a little strange.
Our ancestors in the faith understood this to a degree that we can only begin to imagine. When Israel returned to Jerusalem after generations in exile, the nation literally consisted of different people. They had no memory of their ancestral homeland, and yet they knew from their elders and from their trust in God that Zion was where they were supposed to be. Scripture tells us that when they returned to Jerusalem, the people of Israel did two things: they reflected on what their community had experienced in exile, and more importantly, they reminded themselves who they were as the people of God. Our ancestors in the faith did not forget or celebrate their pain. Rather, they reflected on how their faith had led them through the exile and, crucially, how it could guide them in the future.
As we stand at the threshold of a new program year at Heavenly Rest, we are anticipating a season of our church life that will feel relatively “normal”, especially when compared with the last year or so. While we might be tempted to forget about what we have endured as a community, we have a responsibility to acknowledge what we have lost and learned over these challenging months. Doing so allows us to remember and trust that the God who was with us during the depths of the pandemic will guide us in the days ahead.