The term ‘social distancing’ was something we had never heard of in early January but by May it has quickly become one of the most used terms in the English-speaking world. When we do venture out of our homes to get fresh air the familiar sight of people walking, standing or sitting a minimum of 1.5 metre from each other is an eerie reminder of the invisible virus causing havoc from Tehran to Hong Kong and from Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne.
While we generally speaking are doing very well in Australia compared to so many other nations, the images of empty city streets and makeshift hospitals across the world is taking its toll on our collective psyche. Apart from the enormous economic cost caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people, both young and old, are feeling isolated and lonely and it is causing many to feel increasingly anxious and worried about the present and the future.
Our students are doing their very best to engage with the online learning environment and together with the teachers, they are to be commended for their tremendous efforts in trying to maintain a normal learning environment. But things are far from normal.
As I think about my seven-year-old niece now going back to school in Denmark having to navigate social distancing in a class room and on the playground I wonder what kind of world our young children are growing up in this year. What does it mean for a child when for months on end she is told she can’t play with her friends and that she can’t come close to her teacher or classmates? If the physical distancing measures, so vital to containing the virus, continues for the entire year and perhaps well into next year what effect will it have on our young people who crave relationships with their peers?
Human beings are made for relationships. This is a biblical truth cemented in the ancient text from Genesis 2:18 where it states that, “it is not good that man [the human being] should be alone”. We know this biblical wisdom to be true in our own lives. Human beings have always lived in groups. We naturally seek each other out for love and protection. We thrive when we are together and we crave human connection. We are not made to be alone. We need each other.
In Christian theology relationship is at the heart of who God is envisaged to be. While we are monotheists who believe in one God who we know as love, our understanding which is intuited in the bible and developed in the first centuries AD, speaks of the one God consisting of three beings or ‘energies’ which is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Cappadocian theologians in the fourth century from today’s Turkey spoke of God engaging in an eternal, divine dance of endlessly giving and receiving. This image of the Trinity in whose image and likeness we are created is most beautifully depicted in Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity from the fifteenth century.
The icon is depicted here and the original icon is on display in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Rublev’s icon which is considered a masterpiece of iconography depicts the three men who in Genesis 18:1-16 come to visit Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre promising them the birth of their son, Isaac. In the icon the three men from Genesis 18 in line with the Christian tradition is interpreted as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons are depicted sitting around a table gazing lovingly at each other. In the middle of the icon is a table with the chalice symbolising the Eucharist. Through the empty space in the middle the viewer is invited to the table in order to participate in the divine communion of endless outpouring and receiving of love.
What this icon is saying and indeed what the Christian tradition is saying is that God is not some far away mythical figure in the sky watching over us. Rather God is love (1 John 4:8); a love who is always inviting us into communion, a love that cannot be held back; a love that must be shared. We are created in, through and for that love. Our whole purpose is to enter into the loving communion with God and our fellow human beings and the creatures of the earth and become part of the divine dance where we learn to receive and give. Love simply has to be shared. It is written into the DNA of creation. That’s why we need each other. That’s why miss each other when we cannot be together.
The gospel text on the Third Sunday of Easter from Luke 24 about the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus grieving the crucifixion of Jesus reflects similarly on the centrality of loving relationship. As the disciples walk down the road, the resurrected Jesus who they cannot recognise, joins them on their walk. As night falls, they invite him into their home and in the middle of sharing a meal their eyes are opened and they recognise that in their midst is the Risen Christ. At that very moment he vanishes from their sight.
The story reflects powerfully on the importance of human fellowship; of sharing together; of grieving and being joyful together and of breaking bread together; for when we come together the Risen Christ or the invisible Trinity becomes momentarily visible. When we are alone, cut off from each other’s company, we find it harder to be joyful and when we do come together so often our hearts are warmed by each other’s company and we feel a sense of meaning and purpose to life.
The internet has made our physical isolation so much easier to bear. From Zoom meetings to Mr Hanisch’s internet home cooking to our students’ stories and reflections online, we are blessed with a community that, like the Risen Christ’s appearance to the doubting Thomas (John 20), breaks through walls and warms our hearts. There is much we can do to maintain our connection with each other and I have no doubt that one of the fruits emerging from this crisis will be an increased awareness of the immense value of human relationship.
Let’s hope that our isolation soon will be over and, in the meantime, let’s remember to reach out to our loved ones for we are created in, through and for love.
Reverend Hans Christiansen