Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Her research has been published in multiple articles and seven books. Prof. Murzaku is currently writing a book entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Centerpiece (Paulist Press 2018). She is a regular contributor to media outlets on religious matters including the Associated Press, CNN, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, Salt and Light, The Record, The Stream, Radio Tirana (Albania), Vatican Radio, and EWTN (Rome).
Have you ever been daunted by emptiness?
Have a look at the drone footage taken in various busy metropolitan cities all over the world. In a matter of weeks, the world’s busiest cities have turned into ghost cities abandoned by their citizens. Cities all of over the world are empty: from Budapest to Vilnius, Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon to Paris, New York to Rome, and many others. The citizens have forsaken the cities; they are locked in quarantine. However, the sight of a deserted St. Peter’s Square and an elderly, sober supreme pontiff, limping, in surreal silence, alone in the desert to reach the entrance of one of the most important basilicas in Christendom — the site where according to tradition, the chief among the apostles, St. Peter, died a martyr — will remain chiseled in the minds of people who were following the Holy Father remotely made history. The emptiness of the desert issued a vivid call to the faithful, as they journey through this doubly meaningful Lent.
The March 27, 2020, Urbi et Orbi Blessing presided over by Pope Francis is the most emblematic image of this excruciating moment in modern history and most probably of Pope Francis’ pontificate. The image of a silent and sober Holy Father walking through a deserted St. Peter’s, straining to lift up the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, was remarkable. His was a straight and simple walk with a sole destination — toward the uncovered crucifix of St. Marcello and the equally impressive Byzantine icon of Maria, Salus Populis Romani (health/salvation of the Roman people), from the Church of St. Mary Major in Rome. Francis’ Urbi et Orbi meditation was a plea for help to escape from the pandemic which is devastating Italy and spreading to other countries including our own, the U.S., with devouring speed. This is how the Holy Father started his meditation:
Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented…
Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.313 billion people, is pleading for deliverance from the COVID-19 pandemic in an act of supplication to the Lord. There is theology behind the COVID-19 pandemic which is unfolding and has changed our lives. There are mysteries and unknowns related to the coronavirus, but there is another mystery unfolding right before our eyes as we are going through Lent: the mystery of the Resurrection. The all-surrounding Lenten emptiness and nakedness, busy cities reduced to ghost cities, are acts of kenosis. It is through emptiness that humankind comes to know God and the existence of God. Ascetical theology, which focuses on how one comes to know God, might be helpful as we seek to unpack the emptiness related to COVID-19.
Maximus the Confessor, otherwise known as Maximus the Theologian (ca. 580-662), in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer defined kenosis as — “God deliberately emptying himself of His own sublime glory, the Logos of God truly became man.” In other words, Jesus’ kenosis demands our kenosis: Since the Son of God went through kenosis, how could we, the adopted sons and daughters of God, not go through kenosis?
The emptiness of a deserted piazza, the ghost cities of the modern world is what ascetical theology knows as kenosis, an act of stripping down and stripping away the superfluous. This practice is an act of going down to the fundamentals of faith, to what really matters. Such was indeed the way Jesus himself modeled: He emptied and humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross, as Paul observed in Philippians 2: 7-8. Humanity is kneeling down to COVID-19. The vicious virus which we are experiencing is not dissimilar to the storm the disciples experienced, as Pope Francis explained in his Urbi et Orbi meditation:
The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us.
The vicious virus is stripping modern-powerful man of the self-centeredness, self- righteousness, and anthropocentrism which lead him to believe in auto-redemption. COVID-19 is helping people “realize their nakedness and nothingness, take away their eyes from themselves and rejoice that they have nothing, that they are nothing, that they can do nothing,” as Mother Teresa wrote to a priest friend in February 1974. The journey inside to the self-core is the blessedness of 2020 Lenten journey — a COVID-19 reminder of our weakness, our nothingness and deep fears of perishing. And, believe it or not, realizing our nakedness and nothingness during Lent is cathartic. God cannot fill what is full, but what is empty — this is where Resurrection, start of the Easter season as a filling and fulfilling journey, comes into place.
In Lent through kenosis one is emptied and purified. It is kenosis that allows one to rediscover priorities, establishing a right relationship with beauty, liberating from all forms of concupiscence. The end of kenosis means the end of Lent and the start of Easter. The face of Christ resurrected appears as a source and nucleus of beauty and contemplation. The spiritually trained and tried will realize that Christ’s face has always been there in the suffering of Lent and the death caused by COVID-19, but it was probably veiled and hidden. With an appreciation of kenosis, one will better understand humanity’s struggle during this Lenten season.
With Easter one week away, and the trajectory of COVID-19 hopefully curving downward, we will be able “to give Jesus a big smile.” Because of COVID-19 we have realized our nothingness more profoundly, in the words of Mother Teresa of Kolkata. This has been the 2020 Lenten journey…