As Jerusalem fell in flame and death, or just after, as the population was scattered in a diaspora which has never really ended, and it seemed that empire had triumphed forever, someone we remember as Mark sat down and wrote, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Around 1349, during the first and most horrific episode of the Black Death in Europe, John Clyn of the Friars Minor, Kilkenny, wrote a chronicle of events that includes blank pages at the end, and this passage: “… so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future.”
Here, at my little church, I stand under a sky weirdly dim and orange, and smell the acrid scent of wildfires hundreds of miles away. The weather report some days reads simply, “Smoke,” and the people in power seem as unwilling or unable to take meaningful action as the kings of Israel and Judah were to listen to Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah. The world is on fire, and nothing is normal anymore – there is no such thing. The food suppliers for our meal programs are increasingly likely to have shortages, and prices seem to rise every week. Refugees sleep on the street outside the Streets to Homes referral centre.
Crisis intersects with crisis, over and over. Late one night I have to crawl across the bathroom floor to get into a stall where someone has overdosed. A few days later someone goes down in the churchyard, but before my colleague and I get there, a small person dressed in black, with dark glasses, has taken control, grabbed a naloxone kit and administered the first dose, assigned my colleague to time doses while I am doing crowd control. When the man who went down is conscious and responding, the small dark person disappears. No one is sure who they were. A child of humanity, called to the moment.
I find myself obsessively watching livestreams from a feral cat rescue centre in British Columbia. Wildfires and smoke are their constant background too, but in the livestream, gentle people tend to small creatures with keen individual attention, responding to their particular needs, understanding their traumas, giving them the kind of precise and personal care I can only wish for every being in this world, the struggling people camped outside my church, the hurt people in the streets. If the feral cat livestream is the only place I can reliably find this model of care right now, that is at least something.
I think that I cannot summon the hopefulness of the writer we call Mark, but then I also remember that his telling of the good news concludes, in one of literature’s more daring moves, without a resurrection appearance, and with the sentence, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Like us, Mark lived in a seesaw tension – the good news beginning, yet enveloped in silence and fear; perhaps, like John Clyn, leaving a blank space in case someone came after him, without even being sure that someone would. I search for ways to believe that there is a beginning in all this, for reasons to leave those blank pages towards the future. Last spring I cycled through a path of hurricane damage on Prince Edward Island; great trees devastated, dunes erased along the north shore, but below the fallen trunks the pale Jurassic shapes of ferns slowly unfolding, the survivors, so much older than anything human. Marsh marigolds along the stream banks, among the stripped branches. Creation’s persistent, the dearest freshness deep down things which Hopkins named. Though the last lights off the black West went.
So I get up every day under the strange skies, and I say morning prayer, and I try to take my anxious and irritable self into the world to hold on to a small island of humanity, a community which, we may hope, can bide in the shade of the great events, can try to believe still in the value of care, in the discipline of the needs of others carefully understood, in the possibility of acceptance, and of forgiveness when we fail. There is no certain future. But here and now, this is what we can do.