We live in challenging times. How do we maintain community—more importantly—How do we responsibly celebrate the sacrament of communion during social distancing?

During Holy Week I have always found Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (1970), particularly comforting.

Doubly so during this pandemic

Its central message is that God can endure and conquer godlessness, abandonment, and death: “God is not, in the first place, ‘absolute power,’ but ‘absolute love,’ and his [sic] sovereignty manifests itself not in holding on to what is its own but in its abandonment…” (p. 28).

Many of us find ourselves riddled with anxiety during this time of enforced isolation. Three-to-four weeks in, we recognize that we are not suited to the monastic cell, even when it has all the comforts of home (including streaming video services). Most frustrating is the pervasive sense of impotence we all experience watching an uncontrollable force of nature—a microscopic virus—bring human civilization to a grinding halt.

That’s when we turn to God in prayer, echoing the words of Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22), expecting a miraculous deliverance, only to encounter more silence. Where is God during the pandemic?

The obvious answer is that God is present in every act of self-sacrifice by medical providers, sanitation workers, food producers, and store clerks who put themselves and their families at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 in order to provide essential services and keep our common life from fracturing. That is as valuable an image of Holy Communion as I’ve seen in my lifetime, and one that makes the public gatherings of those Christians who defy the social distancing guidelines ring hollow.

Where is God in the pandemic? Our problem is we have been conditioned to expect our miracles in High-Def with Surround Sound yet God often comes to us in “a still small voice” (1 King 19:12). This Holy Week we do well to recall the wisdom of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who reminds us that God’s very nature—the divine use of power—is not to act by force and coercion, but manifested in the self-emptying action of Christ who came in the form of a slave and lived his life in service of others.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.