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Lent in the Time of Coronavirus

A Reflection from Cardinal Schönborn

February 26, 2021 by

Resurrection by Simon Kenny
Resurrection. Artwork by Simon Kenny.

Although Voices blog posts are usually written by Bruderhof members, I have found no better reflection on Lent this year than the one from my friend Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna. As an Anabaptist, I wasn’t sure what to expect when arriving in predominantly Catholic Austria, but the atmosphere of mutual respect that we have found here allows me, and us, to concentrate on the things that unite us as followers of Christ. The deeply spiritual yet practical way in which Cardinal Schönborn shepherds his flock of more than two million souls, especially through the last challenging year, has inspired me to greater faithfulness. So does the following text. We would all do well to heed its call to turn from despair and discouragement to the purification and liberation that this season offers us.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the forty-day fasting period that began on Ash Wednesday. What a strange time it falls on this year! Where was the carnival that usually precedes Lent? And the balls? They were all canceled, including the famous Opera Ball. Instead, it’s the same topic every day: Covid-19! How many new infections? Where is the latest cluster? Which new mutation is destroying our hopes that the pandemic will end soon? When will this nightmare be over?
The beginning of the Lenten season? For almost a year we have all been living in a never-ending state of Lent. We are involuntarily doing without a lot of things that are dear to us and important to us: contacts have been restricted, as has freedom of travel and the freedom to celebrate festivals together. Children have been separated from school friends and aren’t allowed to hug their grandparents. Adults can’t go to bars, restaurants, theaters, concerts, or movies – everything is closed. For many, work now means a home office – if they still have work, that is. An unexpected Lent has fallen upon us, and indeed upon the whole world. And the end is not yet in sight. It would be nice if it only lasted forty days, to be followed by a happy Easter. That would be a real resurrection from this coronavirus nightmare.
But is it possible to get something good out of this long Lent? Many people consciously undertake certain fasting sacrifices: avoiding too much food, restricting their intake of alcohol or coffee, taking more time for reflection, and giving more attention to others. Lent is intended to cleanse both the body and the soul. It’s about purification, renewal, and even about liberation from old dependencies. After the time of fasting, Easter signifies a new start, a new blossoming of life: the feast of the Resurrection.
What can we learn from Jesus and his period of Lent? Above all, I find three things from the Evangelist Mark that help me to make sense of our long “Covid Lent.” Mark reports only very briefly about Jesus’ forty days in the desert. First, he tells us that Jesus did not go into the desert on his own initiative after his baptism in the Jordan. He says that “the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.” This is what the Israelites experienced when they left Egypt: God himself led them into the desert for forty years. Does that mean I ought to consider this long coronavirus “desert season” to be an initiative of God? Certainly not in the sense of a punishment from God. But I do believe that the desert experiences in our lives have something to do with God. 
In the Bible, the desert is the place where God meets us. Everything else falls away. Jesus is exposed to the loneliness of the desert. In these trying times, we have to do without many things that are important and valuable to us. This inevitably leads to the question: What is really important? What will last, what will endure? We don’t need to make our own fasting resolutions. The virus has claimed enough victims. Let us accept that as a purification!
The second thought from Mark: Jesus “was tempted by Satan.” Mark does not say what the temptation was. No one can get through life without temptation. “Lead us not into temptation,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Does God tempt us? Certainly not! But he allows us to face many temptations. It was the same for Jesus. All the more, we can ask him to help us in our struggles and to forgive us our weaknesses. The greatest temptation is to become discouraged and to despair of God’s mercy.
And the third thought: In the desert, Jesus was “with the wild animals and the angels served him.” We too are exposed to all possible dangers right now, but heaven’s help is still promised us. We are not left alone! Easter is sure to come. Jesus has risen. Life wins over death. Repent and believe the Gospel – right now!

Originally posted in German on February 21, 2021. Translated by Andrew Zimmerman. Used with permission of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

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Andrew Zimmerman, Austria

Andrew Zimmerman

Andrew Zimmerman and his family live at the Gutshof Bruderhof, recently founded in Austria.

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