Coming out of the Great Depression, one of the Civil Works Administration projects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the construction of a small stretch of road through Bergen County, New Jersey and into lower New York State.
It’s maybe one of the most beautiful drives you can take in this part of the country, especially in the spring and autumn. Beginning at the George Washington Bridge, it hugs the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River all the way to Bear Mountain–just far enough from New York City to forget about all that steel and glass and pockets of people and where you can imagine a more lazy, idyllic New York stretching into the Catskills.
I took a drive today, having been quarantined for the last thirty-seven, up this stretch of road–the Palisades Parkway.
I am not someone who loves a long drive, or even a short one. I’m about as utilitarian a person as it gets: the car to me, as the train or the ferry, is just a means of getting from one place to the next, and I’d sell it in a heartbeat if I could go without it. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a good commute; I just rarely do.
For most of the drive, I felt I was able to momentarily steal away from a world caught in a pandemic. The Hudson flowing beneath me, the sun beaming through the windshield, the budding of the trees with spring approaching, the engine roaring with miles on miles passing behind me. My mind, for the first time in days, was emptied out, and it being Easter, it felt somehow kenotic like a kind of sacred “letting go” of the anxiety of this moment, replaced by a “way” forward–just the wide open road ahead.
At one point, I turned off my GPS and just let my gas pedal make the decisions. I wanted badly to pull over and snap some photos, but every “scenic view” was closed, along with most parks here in Jersey.
About the time I thought my heart was quieting, I caught an ambulance in the rear-view mirror and had to move over so they could pass. And even though there’s a million different, good reasons why an ambulance would be soaring down the Palisades Parkway, I couldn’t shake that sinking feeling of what it most likely was.
It all came flooding back, so I turned around and drove home through some of the wealthier neighborhoods of North Jersey where people walked about in groups, no masks in sight, as if they, too, merely wanted to forget–the way I had with the drive, I suppose–that the world around us is truly lethal in this moment.
Either that, or they were alarmingly stupid.
On the way back, I thought about these states of calm and panic and the way they ebb-and-flow right now. There are moments, like the drive or my walks in a nearby cemetery, where I can take pause and see the good in the world again. Yet, there are so many countless others where it’s all so overwhelming you can barely catch your breath, or you can feel your heart skip a beat, and you wonder: is it just anxiety or is it something more?
This all comes amid the holiday, the day Christians celebrate what’s supposed to be a good day, filled with hope and promise.
I’m not looking to deny them that. Like I said, we can ebb and flow and find good when we need to do so. But, admittedly, we’ve seen far too many Christians lately dangerously mixing hope with ignorance, and I guess if your entire worldview is built on the need to maintain your superficial life, you’re going to need to do what you can to ensure no one exposes the difference, or lack of it, between your faith and your stupidity.
My first inclination, then, is to shun the Easter message of hope, to let this awful moment simply be what it is and to treat today like it was any other. As someone who is to Christianity what secular Jews are to Judaism, you could say I already do that on some level, Easter Sunday or not.
At the same time, I found myself reconsidering how to interpret a day like today after an email exchange with a friend who is what I’ll describe as a bit of a rebellious and wise-beyond-his-years Catholic priest who spent many of those years working among United Nations officials and with the World Council of Churches.
Easter as this happy-go-lucky celebration of hope has to, on some level, be in stark contrast with what the first Easter must have looked like. You have this community of people who have just lost their best friend and leader. They are grieving, having wild dreams and visions that bring comfort. They are in denial and in hiding.
In addition to losing their friend, another close friend of the in-group has betrayed them and committed suicide, and the state government and religious authorities are, possibly, hunting them down or planning to murder them, too.
By the time the stone is rolled away, the first intuition is not, as we conveniently make it, “Oh, happy day, he’s not here.” The more likely fear realized is that Jesus’ body has been torn apart and eaten by dogs, as J.D. Crossan has suggested, or stolen in a kind of cruel joke.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of the disciples are demanding proof, despite the visions, dreams, and supposed appearances of angels and the like. Those things are just an added confusion in an already confusing and isolating time, almost as if forcing them to relive the pain of the days before.
Today, Christians read and celebrate the story as it is in hindsight. Hell, even the Christmas story is as much about the crucifixion and resurrection as it is about the birth, the whole thing foreshadowed when the magi bring a gift like myrrh, which was used for embalming and a symbol of death. So, Christians have this tendency to tell many of the stories of Jesus’ birth and life through that lens, moving backward.
So, for this community of faith, Good Friday has ended, the stone rolled away, and “He is Risen, Indeed!”
What if, though, Easter were more like the first one: painful, confusing, isolating, dangerous? What message is there in that? Is there any hope to be gleaned from an Easter that’s that, well, broken as if Good Friday never quite ended?
I think so. But that’s because, I think–more than a time of sunshine and rainbows, Easter is a time of silver linings amid considerable darkness. The message is less, “The stone is rolled away!” and more, “What can we take comfort in?”
Desperate for some sliver of hope, or on a search for those silver linings, I came across a post by our nearest hospital, Holy Name, the ground zero of the epidemic here in New Jersey. As I write this, there have been 61,850 cases and 2,350 deaths, most–just shy of 10,000 cases–from the county where I live. Holy Name has been short on supplies and short on space, and yet, they are reporting some good news:
Using a cutting-edge experimental therapy, our clinical team today injected stem cells into a critically ill coronavirus patient, in the hope they will bolster his immune system and save his life. It was the first time the procedure was performed in the United States to combat COVID-19. The cells, drawn from a human placenta, will hopefully aide the man’s immune response and could potentially also heal tissue damage to his lungs, said Drs. Ravit Barkama and Thomas Birch, two of our clinical researchers. The placenta cells, which were taken following a live, healthy birth, were shipped Friday from Maryland frozen in liquid nitrogen. After being thawed, they were placed in 15 different syringes and injected in the muscles of the man’s body.
The same procedure, performed in Israel, has improved four of six patients who were severely ill with the virus and saw a 100% survival rate.
And that wasn’t all the good news I came across.
I saw a particularly optimistic note, coming from an Oxford professor who is 80% confident we could see a vaccine by September, of this year, not 2021.
What if in the midst of such great suffering, the very core of the human response is to help? It’s this odd twist of fate that with crisis comes the very best of who we are, forcing us to hunker down and solve the problems that we face with urgency. Sure, crisis brings out the worst of us too, but I’m inclined to hope–during this particularly religious holiday–that the better angels of our nature win out in the end.
Or, maybe I’m not all that different from those Christians who foolishly go to church thinking their faith, not science, will protect them. But a lot can happen between now and September.
Either way, the pain, the confusion, the isolation are there, but they aren’t there void of any silver linings–a people trying, a people hopeful, a path forward, like the curvy green stretch of the Palisades Parkway.
As we deal with this time, we inevitably ebb and flow from the need to confront this overwhelming grief back to the need to take hope that something better is coming. Or, to put that in the Christian context, Good Friday and Easter are not two separate days or theological realities, one really bad and one really good, but the two are instead inextricably and always linked, our hope and our despair coexisting as we trudge on down the highway.
For now, we’ll just keep driving. And one way or another, we’ll make it home.