This weekend is a curious one for many reasons, and it has application, I think, to our lives today.
Yes, the 25th is my 70th birthday! This is scary in and of itself. But it’s not that important to what I’d like to share with you. It is also the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist, sometime traveling companion of Ss Paul and Barnabas, and later an associate (as it seems) both of St Paul and St Peter. He is the source of our 2nd Gospel. He is also the patron of Venice. If New York likes to think of itself as “the City that never sleeps,” Venice is (sadly) “the City that ever sinks.” Flooding is getting worse and worse; how long will this incredible collection of islands (for that is what Venice actually is) last? When will we lose St Mark’s Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the Rialto Bridge, the glass-blowing island of Murano, and so on? Italians (and especially Venetians) are acutely aware of this reality.
Beyond this, 25 April is the celebration of Italian independence and a national holiday. I wonder how “independent” my friends in Italy feel in these days! They are locked down except for emergency travel (pharmacies and grocery stores); they are afraid for all the cases of COVID-19 that have been documented, for all those who have died from the disease, and all those who may well be asymptomatic carriers. We’ve seen the videos of Pope Francis leading the prayer vigil on the steps of St Peter’s, with the whole piazza stretched out in front of him: utterly empty. We’ve seen him deliver his annual Easter Urbi et Orbi message “to the City and the world”—from the empty basilica. The effect is to emphasize alienation, loneliness, isolation (social or otherwise).
The 25th of April is for Italians what would be, for us, if we were held in fear to our homes on the Fourth of July: a completely un-independent Independence Day.
This past week our Orthodox brothers and sisters celebrated Easter, and a week earlier our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Passover. Christians of the East and West rejoice in the triumph of Jesus Risen, but we see that there is a difference between the guarantee of final victory and its realization here and now. For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, celebrating their own liberation from Egyptian slavery, what an irony must have been crushing them, knowing they were occupied by the forces of the Roman Empire!
So we must look backward to remember, and we must look forward to hope. Meanwhile, we are in the middle. And perhaps the best lesson to be learned from all of the fear and suffering of this pandemic, once it is cleared, is that we are NOT “independent,” after all: for better and for worse, we rely on one another. To quote the 17th century poet John Donne: “No man is an island…Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” And everyone’s life empowers me, for the same reason. May we never forget, later on, to be “involved in [all] mankind.” We can make decisions and take actions that hold in regard the needs of others as well as ourselves—because we are family.