Ellen Raffety: Lenten Hope in a Pandemic


A photo of leaves on snow with green buds sprouting out of the ground signaling spring and hope. Image courtesy of Dr. Erin Raffety.

I had a visceral reaction to the coming of Lent this year. I’d never felt like this before. But apparently my body remembered that it was this time last year that fear of a highly contagious virus drove us into our homes, cloistered from other people. And then there were the killings, the protests, the political unrest. I couldn’t help but think we had had enough Lent already. Anymore just seemed cruel.

But we are still waiting. We had hope, of course, a year ago that this would all be over in the blink of an eye. As the year progressed and more uncertainty appeared, our hopes flitted from one thing to the next. Hopes delayed, hopes dashed — hope became nearly as unstable as suffering.

Waiting, without hope, is unbearable.

My family knows a thing about uncertainty or two. When my daughter was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease for which the prognosis is death in early childhood, it seemed futile to hope for things like developmental milestones or even birthdays. When she was hospitalized frequently and even doctors did not know what was going on, it was left up to us to manage our emotions. On a daily basis, Lucia has unexplained neurological and gastroenterological symptoms. Sometimes we get to find out what’s going on, but oftentimes we don’t.

Practicing loving her through that uncertainty has taught me that human hope can be a bit of an imposition, with its cathecting toward certainty, its insistence on its own way, its hubris in always knowing better. I don’t always get to know better with my daughter, I don’t even always have the power to make her pain go away, but choosing to be with her in that pain, even when it hurts, reminds me that acceptance is the part of love we’d rather not choose.

But for Christians, this just may be the kind of hope we need.

Will the vaccine make my daughter’s life more accessible? I doubt it.

While the world clamors for a miracle shot, I struggle to pin my hope on a vaccine that may so exacerbate my daughter’s fragile immune system that it leaves her permanently weakened, or may not fully prevent the spread of Covid-19, leaving her vulnerable in the future, unable to go to school, we unable to return to work.

More importantly, though, our society’s beliefs about the exposable quality of disabled lives have revealed themselves (yet again) under these conditions of pandemic: it’s not that disabled bodies present irresolvable challenges to life as we know it, it’s that we refuse to accept disabled lives as viable and valuable. The recent lack of attention to the accessibility of vaccine locations, the lack of prioritization for disabled people and their caregivers in vaccine distribution, and the lack of provisions for people now disabled and living with the long term effects of Covid-19 are just a few ways we prefer to sweep disability under the rug, even wish or hope it away, rather than recognize its importance to humanity.

My point is not just that hope and disability can coexist, but that experiences of pain, uncertainty, and disability cultivate a different, faithful kind of hope that we Christians need.

After all, we serve a God whose resurrection did not leave him without wounds or scars, but whose ultimate fulfillment of hope challenged and transformed our very images of who God is. Yet, here we are, a year out from the beginning of the pandemic, and we are still relying on our own hopes to save us.

Out here in the perpetual wilderness, Jesus reminds us that acceptance is paradoxically crucial to resurrection hope. All throughout Lent, Jesus tells his disciples he must suffer, he must be rejected, he must be crucified, and he must die.

When petulant Peter tries to have it otherwise, Jesus tells him to get out of his way, to stop setting his mind on human things (Mark 8:31-33). Just a few verses later, Jesus tells the crowd, that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

Gospel hope, Gospel living is not about self-preservation and self-sustenance, but about radical acceptance of both the realities of our human lives and the foolish, earth-shattering difference the resurrection makes.

So this Lent, I’m calling for hope.

It often feels too tender, too raw, to hope when everything is uncertain, but perhaps that’s because we’ve put our hope in human things in an effort to distract us, to forgo the suffering and the pain.

I don’t want a hope that skips over Lent and its harsh reality, because we clearly can’t escape that. But I’m advocating for hope that anchors itself firmly in the resurrected God no matter what comes, as a taking up of one’s cross rather than a futile wish that life were otherwise.

We will still wait, of course: but let us not wait with our hope in lawmakers, returns to “normalcy,” school openings, vacations, or even vaccines. Rather, let us wait with hope and conviction in the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Our hope often insists on able-bodied dreams and futures; thus, it falls apart in the face of uncertainty. But Jesus’s hope, God’s hope finds us in the wilderness, bidding us to abundant life in the Spirit. This is where we all belong, if we could only let go of human hopes.


Erin Raffety

The Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety

Erin Raffety is a Presbyterian pastor, a Cultural Anthropologist, and Research Fellow in Pastoral Care & Machine Intelligence at the Center for Theological Inquiry. She is currently working on a book on the ministry and leadership of people with disabilities in the church.



Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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