Every single morning now, when I fire up the interwebs, there are at least three articles about the “new normal.” Some of them ponderously explain that there will be a new normal. Others disparage the very idea of there being a new normal. The more interesting ones try to imagine what the new normal will be like, offering soothing comfort that “normal” will someday return, in one form or another. The one thing we do know, of course, is that “new normal” is part of the lexicon now, like “totes” and “Ghanaian Funeral Dance” (maybe don’t watch with children). After everyone has said it four times, it loses its luster. One begins to forget that “new” and “normal” are not words that ordinarily go together. By definition, something “new” hasn’t yet become “normal.” After a while it will and then it will not be “new,” it will just be “normal,” and we’ll all go out looking for something “new” again. Too many scare quotes? I suppose I’m going a bit…overboard…that’s just a little joke:
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.
Wow, forty days is an awfully long time. Let’s see, I’m just going to quickly look to see how many days I have been inside. Hang on…math is hard…ok, based on the fact that we went into lockdown fully a whole week before the rest of the world, that makes, counting today, 36 days. Which means we will hit forty this week. I find it actually a touch insensitive that this would be the official lesson, picked by the church, for this day, and that after this I think the ACNA should rearrange the lectionary so as not to include this text, because the next time it comes up it will totally trigger me. Anyway, where are we:
Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth.
Which means that Noah, like Thomas, waits another seven interminable days, where each day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. The “new normal” if you will, that waiting for what feels like an eternity, because in some sense all of eternity is held inside those long seven days.
He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.
So Noah and his family climb out of the ark, pale and wan with a social isolation that doesn’t end when they feel the wind in their faces and the sun on their backs. The “new normal” is that everyone in the world died—except for them.
This is one of those terrible texts that make the Bible, overall, hard to stomach. Sure, you can tell the story about God keeping Noah and his family safe in the ark. You can tie this ark to the much smaller ark that will be built later, the one that will have the law put inside it, and the bread, and the staff that budded (GET IT?). You can point even farther forward to Jesus who keeps the law perfectly, who hangs on the tree, who is himself Life, who is the bread (seriously, I hope you get it). You can go on and think about the Holy Spirit living inside of you, preserving you, giving you life. But still, so many people died.
Which I am hearing from all corners. I’ve even said it myself—we’re all going to die. So why live in fear? Why be locked inside of that close, tight room, why stay inside the ark, why stay in your house, why “shelter in place?”
That’s the conundrum between Easter Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter. Easter Sunday is a riot of joy. The women’s despondent hike to the tomb to discover that Jesus isn’t there, he is a live, Jesus meeting Mary Magdalen, Peter and John racing to the tomb and finding it empty, Jesus’ several hours trudge down the road to Emmaus and then cutting back to the locked room and all the disciples (except for Thomas—poor Thomas). By the end of the day their whole lives, which had already been shaken to the core as the week went on, had been shaken again. I expect they all stayed inside on Monday to sleep, as they should do. And Tuesday. Maybe even Wednesday. Probably on Thursday, someone went out to stock up on provisions. Whoever did go out went out furtively, social distancing with expert fear, trying not to attract anyone’s attention. And then there they are, on Sunday, “the door again being locked.”
This is the “new normal.” And really, it hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. Just like when Noah and his family climbed out of the ark on the bright, clean, sparkling earth essentially took up where they had left off. Noah made wine, first of all, and then got drunk and passed out naked, second of all, and then cursed one of his sons. And by the time we get to Abraham, the earth was just as bad as it was before. Whether we go out and go shopping, or whether we stay in with our doors locked, isolation, disease, rebellion, trouble, and strife all go on day after day after day. In other words, don’t get your hopes up. It’ll be super great when we do all get to go outside (may it be soon, Dear Sweet Heavenly Saints Above) but after about a week, the “new normal” will look very much like the old normal. We will remember all the important lessons we learned for maybe a month, max, and then we’ll forget and start complaining about all the usual stuff, trespassing and being trespassed against, and yes, even dying.
Except that the new normal and the old normal—with that wretched week of eternity in between—differ from each other in one surprising way. God, even before the waters started to recede, told Noah
Behold I will establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you… This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.
And then, making good on that sign by staying his just wrath until the perfect time when the Son would walk onto that no longer clean, bright earth and be lifted up between the ground and the sky, enacting the covenant in his own body and blood, and then–and this is the key–rising again, in a visceral and bloody gift, holds out his hands to Thomas, of all people, and says, “Peace be with you,” and also, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
The “new normal” now is not that we are all going to die, it is that we are all going to live, that eternity is not just some sickening, interminable time pulling each one of us down into the grave to wander in the shadows forever. The new normal is that, when you step over the threshold of death, it is not into yet more death, but into a life that goes on without all the frustrations, disease, bitterness, sin, and disappointment—if you believe, which is not some esoteric thought experiment, but looking into the eyes of Jesus, being enlivened by the Holy Spirit, being bound by an unshakable hope that never dies or fades away.
Peter, writing a bit later, will remind the church of that “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.” As if the rainbow or the downpayment of the risen body of Jesus are not even all that awaits those who are “grieved by various trials.”
You, like Thomas, though your social distancing from the Body of Christ may feel, as it does for me, not just emotionally painful but physically so, can yet say the words of Thomas—“My Lord and my God,” can know that “though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that it is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your soul.