For the past several weeks, I have been hosting Virtual Coffee Hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and on some Sundays after worship. This coming Sunday, we will host the Friends of Sabina from Uganda on Zoom. The goal of these Coffee Hour meetings is to check-in with one another, and to make sure that each parishioner is doing well and staying safe. Conversations go the full gamut. Nothing is off-topic. A few days ago on one such gathering, Patricia Fanning shared with me an article that she read in the New York Times about Ms. Tanisha Brunson-Malone.
Ms. Brunson-Malone, 41, is a forensic technician at the Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC). She works at the hospital’s morgue, performing autopsies and overseeing the pickups by funeral homes of patients who have died.
Ms. Brunson-Malone visits Metropolitan Plant and Flower Exchange in Paramus, New Jersey a couple of times each week, picks up yellow daffodils, and then brings them to her work at HUMC. This is the part where the story gets a little interesting - she takes the yellow daffodils with her to the morgue - which is in a trailer sitting on a car park - and on each newly-deceased person's body bag, she prayerfully lays a yellow daffodil on top.
"Why?" you may ask.
Interestingly, she does not know any of the deceased. She is not related to any of them by blood. She spends about $100.00 each week to purchase these yellow daffodils. The reality is that she is not supposed to extend any such gesture to the deceased; after all, they are dead. To go a little further is not part of her job, yet she does it anyway. Even more surreal is that she does not place those yellow daffodils on the basis of who is in which body bag, rather that she simply places a yellow daffodil on each because each person bore within them the dignity and image of the living God.
Although not articulated in the article, I found a latent embrace of a kind of dignity which she accorded the deceased. She offered to the deceased that which a loved one could not offer - not for lack of will, but because of COVID-19. In her mind, if only because she could offer something, those yellow daffodils tell the larger story of a dignified human being who is created after the image of God.
To be made after the image of God is to be scarred with the wound of transcendence. This means that we are not limited by any of the categories that often define who we are. We can transcend any one of those categories with a touch of compassion. The wound of transcendence moves us beyond what we can do, and towards what we must do. The wound of transcendence acknowledges an all-embracing imprint: the imago Dei that humans are made in the image of God and are stamped with divinity, and that knowledge is the key which releases us from the binding power of all other imprints.
This imprint of the divine in each of us simply means that no matter what happens to us - whether we are shaken by the effects of this pandemic, have lost loved ones whom we never got the chance to say our good-byes, have lost jobs and businesses, couldn’t go to the prom or hold graduation ceremonies to mark a major milestones in our lives, or are feeling depressed and emotionally drained - the last word has not been spoken about us because we are still open and unfinished.
The imprint of the divine simply means that we are made for love, by love. We are pilgrims of a transcendent God who continually invites us to go beyond ourselves, to see no limitation in being compassionate. Ms. Brunson-Malone went beyond herself, beyond her call of duty to offer yellow daffodils of dignity.
What I find so compelling about her kind gesture is that it reflects the length with which others go to make life meaningful, fulfilling, and dignified for others - especially the sick. Ms. Brunson-Malone represents to me all the many different faces of our first responders - doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, paramedics and all those who have put their lives on the line to care for those who have been affected by COVID-19. Some of these first responders are our neighbors, spouses, friends, parents, children, and parishioners. I have nothing but absolute respect for their dedication and hard work.
Today is Ascension Day. This is the day we celebrate the completion of Jesus’ earthly ministry and his ascension into heaven. I said in my brief homily this morning that anything that has a beginning has an end, but also that the end is also the beginning of something new, something different. The new and different for you and I is the idea that God’s spirit continually fools us out of our limitations, makes us pioneers beyond the womb, and bearers of the transforming Holy Spirit.
The creative among us, like Ms. Brunson-Malone, are those who carry within themselves the sign that human beings are more than they think they are, and for the sake of compassion, carry with them yellow daffodils of dignity.