“I can’t breathe” – homily for Day 1 of Perpetual Help novena

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Famous lines from WB Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Published a century ago, “The Second Coming” is one of the most plundered poems in the English language, its lines popping up regularly in books, songs, films, TV, speeches and newspapers. It’s a poem we turn to in uncertain times: Things fall apart…

Lines from another Yeats’ poem, “Easter 1916,” are repeatedly plundered, too: “All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.”

Yeats was referring to the 1916 rising. He could just as easily have been describing our world today. When we’re lost for words, we turn to poets to better express how we feel. Yeats’ words summarise the catastrophe of Covid-19: Things fall apart… All changed utterly.

Unlike the recession of 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every country. It has cut across differences of age, gender, ethnicity, wreaking devastation and despair. It has brought sickness, death, loss, loneliness, isolation, domestic violence, collapsed credit, closed churches, shuttered shops, deserted workplaces. It has tested and tormented us—the deepest depression in a century.

These past few months, all changed utterly – but not all for the bad. Some change has been positive.

Our sense of connectedness has deepened. Physical distancing has reminded us to treasure our relationships, to nurture them, to never take them for granted. It has reminded us of those priceless traditional values we were in danger of letting go – community, neighbourliness, solidarity, empathy, concern for one another.

We have a new appreciation for health care and front line workers, those often overlooked, overworked and underpaid. We are reminded that those who hold many of the most critical jobs don’t have fancy degrees or smart suits or posh addresses; that without these essential workers, society would crumble. We’ve been invited to value people and jobs that often we disregard.

Planet earth has had a chance to catch its breath. Smog lifted, air pollution plummeted, waterways cleared, fauna and flora flourished, nature nurtured—a real springtime for our common home.

All welcome developments, but at a terrible cost. Covid-19 has been that rare plague that has affected everyone in some way.

Last month, as George Floyd choked under a policeman’s heavy knee in Minneapolis, his last gasping words were, “I can’t breathe.”

“I can’t breathe” also describes the experience of victims of Covid-19, struggling frantically for air. It describes so much of our human experience.

“I can’t breathe” is an expression of the wearied cry of the world’s poor, who have been hit hardest by this pandemic.

“I can’t breathe” is the jaded cry of those continuously crushed by racism, in Ireland as well as overseas.

“I can’t breathe” is the exhausted cry of women and LGBT people and all who suffer discrimination.

“I can’t breathe” is the plaintive cry of our plundered planet.

“I can’t breathe…” Three little words that express so much of what’s wrong with our world today, problems compounded by the pandemic. Three little words that remind us of the work we need to do if we are to love and care for each other as we should.

Covid-19 proposes three points for reflection, three lessons for us Christians.

Covid-19 has been a wake-up call, a chance for us to think about what matters most. Many of us lead busy lives. There is so much to do, so many commitments that seem important. The lockdown has forced us to slow down, to put plans on hold. It’s been an invitation to examine our activities, our priorities, to practice present moment awareness. A chance to breathe.

I’ve heard more birdsong this spring than at any time in my life. The birds have always been singing, of course. It’s just I was too distracted to hear them before. A retreat from the world, even if imposed on us, is an opportunity to take stock. Grasp this chance while you can. See, smell, listen, hear, touch. Breathe.

Covid-19 has highlighted the major fault lines in our society and church. Like how we treat our elderly. Why have nursing homes and residential institutions been so severely affected? How can we take better care of our most vulnerable?

Racism isn’t just an American phenomenon. It’s present here, too. We must hold the incoming government to its pledge to end the scandal of Direct Provision. We must confront racism wherever we encounter it.

How can we better reward and recognise our frontline workers, those drivers and carers and cleaners and shop assistants and delivery people, who have risked their lives at the coalface these past six months?

Shuttered churches have given us a painful foretaste of what it’ll be like in 20 years when there will be few priests left to celebrate the sacraments. How can we become a less clerical, more inclusive church?

The shutdown has shown how quickly the earth can breathe anew if given a chance. What can each of us do to help it breathe?

Finally, this pandemic reminds us of a wonderful truth about our God. On the cross, Jesus said, “I can’t breathe.” His breath was taken from him. But God raised Jesus from the dead. And remember what Jesus did when he appeared to his followers in the upper room after his resurrection: he breathed on them. His first act was to breathe on them. The breath of new life. The breath of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of peace, of forgiveness, of courage and strength. We have been given that same Holy Spirit. That same Spirit breathes in us. The Holy Spirit lives in us, so that even in our suffering, even in our grief and hardship, even when things fall apart, even when all is changed utterly, even when we struggle for air, God is by our side. And with God by our side, we need not be afraid.

Author: frommypulpit

I'm a Redemptorist preacher and writer, with an interest in history, politics, and sport, who is living with chronic back pain.

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