Lent is a good time to think about COVID-19. Both bring suffering. True, Christ’s passion on the cross infinitely exceeds the turmoil, hardship, and death of the pandemic. But Christ’s suffering is what allows us to make sense of our suffering, and there’s a direct tie between our response to COVID hardships and our reaction to the cross of Christ.
Squabbles and conflicts on COVID-related issues have mutated and spread as fast and pervasively as the illness itself. Bioweapon or bat-spawned virus? Pandemic or flu-like sickness? Virtual consecration, drive-by communion, or flouting the rules? Open up or lock down? Yea or nay to the jab? I have views (some of them held passionately) on each of these topics, but the blogosphere has exhausted them, and I won’t here add fuel to the fire.
Each of these matters concerns the what of our COVID-response. They have to do with our opinions on scientific, liturgical, political, economic, and moral matters. I’ve heard far less about the how of our COVID-response, the mode in which we react to the current situation. The latter issue is important, because coronavirus involves suffering—physical, economic, social. For Christians, it matters how we respond to suffering. Lent may not help with the what, but it sure says lots about the how of our COVID-response.
The other day I read Bonaventure’s The Mystical Vine. (A nod to Bonaventure enthusiasts: Yes, its authorship is debated, but that’s of no consequence here.) Bonaventure’s devotional explores the implications of Jesus’s words, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). He doesn’t offer exegesis—at least not anything like what most of today’s New Testament scholars would recognize as exegesis. Instead, the 13th-century Franciscan takes an excursus into the world of viticulture and applies the various features of the vine to the suffering of Jesus.
Bonaventure first turns to what he calls “external aspects of vine cultivation.” A vine, explains Bonaventure, is planted as a cutting, not as a seed; so too Jesus was planted in the Virgin’s womb. A vine is pruned; Jesus was circumcised. A vine is dug around; enemies dug pits for Jesus to fall into and dug even into his hands, his feet, and his side. A vine is tied; Jesus was bound with the bonds of the Virgin’s womb, with the manger, with the ropes of his arrest and of the scourging post, with the crown of thorns, and with nails of iron.
Next, Bonaventure examines the vine itself. He observes the trunk’s gnarled shape and links it to the absence of beauty in the suffering Jesus (Isa. 53:2). Bonaventure takes careful note of the disfigurement of Jesus’s agonizing, almost lifeless, sweaty body: “Where in this ravaged body will you find any beauty?” Bonaventure, therefore, contrasts the outward ugliness of Jesus’s distorted body with his inward beauty and grace.
Moving from the trunk to the leaves, Bonaventure notes seven leaves growing on the vine. They are Jesus’s seven words on the cross—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”; “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”; “Woman, behold, your son! Behold, your mother!”; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; “I thirst”; “It is finished”; and “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”
Bonaventure finally turns to the flowers of the vine. Jesus possessed the beauty of all flowers, but Bonaventure explains that on this Vine bloomed a “red and ardent rose.” He describes it as a rose of love and a rose of the passion, with every petal making up a drop of blood. The rose dropped seven petals—seven sheddings of blood: his circumcision, his bloody sweat in the garden, the plucking of his cheeks (cf. Isa. 50:6), his piercing crown of thorns, the scourging of the whips, the piercing nails, and the wound in his side.
Bonaventure’s mystical vine is a teaching tool. He describes it as a “Tree of Life,” which in its medieval context is a dead giveaway that we’re in the realm of pedagogy. Trees of Life, as references to Christ and his cross, served as mnemonic devices for remembering details of the life of Jesus. It would be easy to make a drawing of this mystical vine and to populate it with the various features outlined in the devotional, especially the trunk, the leaves, and the flowers.
Bonaventure’s own memory was an emotional one. His mind was filled with compassion with Jesus—in the full sense of the word com-passio. His meditation made him suffer with Jesus. Let’s take one example from each of the four parts of Bonaventure’s mystical tree: one from the external aspects of viticulture, one from the trunk, one from the leaves, and one from the flowers.
First, from the external aspects an example from the binding of this Vine. Bonaventure wants us to go to Jesus, outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured (cf. Heb. 13:13): “Let us be bound with the bonds of the passion of the good and most loving Jesus, so that we may also share with Him the bonds of love. For, made fast by these latter, He was drawn down from heaven to earth in order to suffer the former. Conversely, we who desire to be drawn from earth into heaven, must bind ourselves to our Head with the bonds of the passion, through which we will attain the bonds of love and thus become one with Him.” For Bonaventure, we are united with Christ in his love only by being united with him in his suffering.
Next, take these words about the ugly, gnarled trunk of the Vine: “Let us, too, be deformed outwardly in our bodies, together with Jesus deformed, that we may be reformed internally, to companion Jesus most fair.”
About the fourth leaf—the cry of dereliction—Bonaventure applies Jesus’s saying to the church: “Could the Father ever forsake His only-begotten Son? Assuredly not. But our Head, the most loving Jesus, spoke in this way from the whole body, that is, the whole Church. . . . He thus made it clear that He would suffer in all her members. . . . Hence, the One who cannot possibly be derelict cries out that He is forsaken, because many of His members are to suffer distress to the point of appearing almost abandoned by God.”
Finally, from Jesus being scourged with whips, the fifth shedding of blood (and “oh, what a sea of sacred blood must have soaked the ground”), we learn a moral lesson, namely, “to bear with courageous patience the scourgings inflicted by our blessed Father.” Just as Jesus patiently bore the scourgings of the iniquitous, so should we: “O man, foolish and without understanding, hear and be instructed. Far from trying to flee the discipline, you should rather embrace it, lest you perish from the way of righteousness.”
The what of our COVID-response certainly matters. Much is at stake for our life together. But our rights, our health, and our wealth are not of primary or ultimate concern.
In Lent, we recall that it’s the how of our response that matters most. When financial pressures squeeze in on us, Bonaventure counsels us to bind ourselves to Jesus’s bonds of passion. When physical sickness cripples our body, Bonaventure steers us toward identification with the gnarled body of Jesus. When loneliness isolates us, Bonaventure calls on us to cry with Jesus for the Father’s presence. And when persecution looms, Bonaventure urges us to recognize even here the Father’s loving discipline.
Bonaventure’s main counsel for Lent is unambiguous: We ourselves must become the vine. COVID calls for com-passion with Jesus.
“O tender Jesus, in what state do I behold You?”
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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