“Alone thou goest forth, O Lord, in sacrifice to die…”
—Peter Abelard. Translated by F. Bland Tucker,
Hymnal 1982, #164
Apparently, there are different kinds of ‘alone.’
The restrictions of life under COVID-19 have brought me anything but loneliness. Social distancing is undoubtedly hard at other stages of life, but as the parent of three boys under the age of 7, I’m never alone. I have my usual schedule of chasing monsters from bedrooms and mediating Pokémon disputes, but I now also teach math, science, reading, and art. I do physical therapy with my infant, and careful menu planning with my wife. I also have a full-time job. I am never, ever alone, and I find it quite hard.
Thomas Merton, the twentieth century monastic and writer, helpfully differentiates the varieties of loneliness. What our spirits need, he writes, is solitude—space within us that is receptive to the Spirit, rather than loneliness. Loneliness per se is more like alienation, a feeling of being foreign within our own identity. Merton (who didn’t love his time in New York City) often thinks of cities as alienating places, but even he admits that how alienated or lonely we are often has little to do with how often we see people. It has to do with us, and with God.
The quality of our loneliness matters. When we worry about the effects of social distancing on our culture, we are naming the way that our culture is generally alienating, and the way that the present crisis has highlighted how fragile we are within such a distressing framework. We need to be there for each other at the moment, even if ‘there’ is via phone or internet, and this is a vital Christian call.
Today, however, is Good Friday, and it is the day we celebrate loneliness. Usually, we come together in order to honor it with long Passion readings, dramatic reenactments, emotional views of the cross, or even (in my own tradition) the aptly named (and beautiful) Solemn Collects. But not under today’s crisis, COVID-19. Today, we celebrate loneliness alone.
Jesus goes forth alone in sacrifice to die, as the hymn sings, but of course he isn’t really alone. There are soldiers and crowds and the women disciples; there are authorities and collaborators; there are rebels and thieves. I wonder whether Jesus would have preferred a little privacy. I’ve known a number of people over the years who couldn’t let themselves die until the last family member had finally left the hospital room, or the spouse had finally gone home, or in-laws were sitting in while everyone else grabbed lunch. Death sometimes demands privacy.
No, if Jesus is alone, it must be in another way. The hymn suggests that the quality of Jesus’s loneliness is alienation. He is alienated by us. He is made to suffer for our sins without any acknowledgement from us. Jesus goes forth alone because we have abandoned him, and there is something true about this.
Strong and thoughtful voices in our tradition describe this alienation as extending even to God-forsakenness, as Jesus cries out on the cross. In experiencing the ultimate alienation, God sympathizes with our worst experiences. In this way of thinking about Good Friday, we celebrate loneliness as the clearest picture of the depths that God will descend out of love for us. We see this most clearly in the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. No quarantine or social distance remains unknown to God, and so we know that we need never face these times without God.
But if Merton is right, we also need to see that we can understand Jesus’s loneliness as solitude. It reads the scenario differently, and our Christian heritage has always embraced different perspectives on this point. Jesus goes forth alone not in alienation but in full, loving openness to the Spirit. Among those who march with him to the crucifixion, he alone isn’t lost in a crowd, or in the pain of his emotions. In the politics, the betrayals, the agony, Jesus alone has not lost view of God’s love. His solitude is perfect. We see this especially in John’s gospel. Every occasion becomes one of potential blessing in the eyes of Jesus. Even the worst moments can be transformed into gateways into new life. This happens not through optimism but by God’s endless, gracious desire to give. Quarantine becomes time with family. Illness becomes an opportunity to serve and be served. Death remains hard, but even it becomes a translation into new life.
Today, in a way unusual for us Christians, we have the opportunity to celebrate loneliness while being alone. It is fitting, I think. Whatever the quality of our loneliness, it is the particular blessing of this day to spend it with God. No quarantine can take that grace away.