THE nation is proud of its clappees: the health and care workers, public servants, and those in key industries fighting against the coronavirus; and hearts have been warmed by news of the more than half a million NHS volunteers. That figure, standing as testimony to the altruism that resides in the UK, counters the depressing effect of the stories of hoarding and irresponsible behaviour. But reports of the sacrificial work of key workers can leave others feeling forgotten. As people applaud the labour of those who are, rightly, deemed vital for the nation’s survival, they need to recognise, too, the day-to-day work of those who, in normal times, keep others safe, cared for, employed, and fruitful, but are currently unable to do so. Work that, until now, formed an essential part of someone’s identity and dignity, and is ordinarily essential for others’ well-being, may no longer be seen as key, or is rendered impossible by the restrictions on travel and mingling.
This includes not just paid work. A church can survive losing the use of its building. It is harder to sacrifice the work of its volunteers and the example of its lay people in the world: those manifestations of the love of God and neighbour which, in normal times, include countless practical acts, whether individual, in the neighbourhood or the workplace, or organised in parish programmes. Many church members will be tempted to feel that they have been demoted to non-combatants in the war against the coronavirus. Most of the clergy report that they are busy on the phone and social media. But many of the Church’s key workers fall into the vulnerable category, and have been advised to self-isolate because of age or ill health. In this emergency, when the impulse to reach out to those in need is strongest, they have become observers — clappers — of the work of others; but they may also have more time to support it through prayer.
With the example of Christ in Holy Week, too, they should not be altogether discouraged. After Palm Sunday, his active ministry is ended and he submits to his Passion. And we must also remember that the salvation that he won has not the slightest root in any work of ours: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is our only means of reconciliation with God. For a season, at least, our task is to observe and receive. It is itself a form of suffering to observe suffering impotently, as Mary and the beloved disciple did at the foot of the cross. Helplessness in the face of suffering may be the hardest task that any one of us is given, and teach us the deepest truth, as we follow the way of the cross to Easter.