When I was young, and my sister and I complained about something trivial, my dad would say (lovingly and jokingly), “Offer it up.” No doubt, though not a regular churchgoer, he was echoing something that was said to him, quite seriously, in his pre–Vatican II youth by Catholic relatives (his aunt was a religious sister) and teachers.
I was thinking about this phrase in connection with complaints I have heard regarding wearing a mask. True, wearing a mask is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and, in a minor way, difficult. As many have complained, it makes it (a little) harder to breathe. However, in light of that last complaint, in particular, we might consider how to “offer it up” in a meaningful way.
First of all, what does the phrase “offer it up” mean? It means intentionally giving a small or large suffering of any kind over to God, making something a sacrifice that might otherwise be simply a small inconvenience, or perhaps something more significantly painful but unconnected to our relationship with God. Thinking of questions this practice might raise for our Protestant brothers and sisters, it does not mean adding anything to the all-sufficient death of Jesus on the cross. Rather, it means linking our suffering, small or great, to his, in the spirit of what Saint Paul mentions in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Nothing is lacking in the sufficiency of Christ’s afflictions in terms of their efficacy in redeeming us from our sins, but we can willingly and joyfully join our own sufferings with his as part of the body of Christ, suffering for the sake of others.
Wearing a mask, despite its unpopularity among many Americans, is a small sacrifice we can make to keep others (and ourselves) safer. Any “suffering” it involves could be offered up as a prayer for those with Covid-19. The greatest suffering involved in wearing a mask is experiencing difficulty breathing; victims of Covid-19, in its worst stages, are put on ventilators because they cannot breathe for themselves. Death comes as the lungs completely shut down. Breathing—which, yes, a mask hinders in a minor way—is completely taken away from those at this stage of Covid-19. What a small sacrifice it is to wear a mask to protect ourselves and others from this fate, and making the acceptance of it into a prayer on behalf of those suffering from Covid-19 renders it doubly meaningful.
But the lack of being able to breathe has a deeper resonance given the death of George Floyd, whose last words were “I can’t breathe” and who had his breath cut off for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while former police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee unrelentingly into his neck. The video taken at the time, captured by a brave 17-year-old, graphically portrays this event: the other officers aid and abet the assault while horrified bystanders challenge the abuse. I participated in a protest for Black Lives Matter, held in Newark shortly after the death of George Floyd, and all participants were required to wear a mask. The link between the two symbols—the masks and the signs (some of which read “I can’t breathe”)—was clear and meaningful.
Perhaps we could, once again, “offer it up” as we experience the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask in memory of George Floyd, who experienced the complete cutting off of his breath, knowing he was facing death. We could offer it up as a very small sign of reparation for the sin of systemic racism, which has been part of this country since before it became a nation. We could offer it up as a prayer that action, and not just “thoughts and prayers,” be part of our response to the abuses that continue to flow from the evils of racism on which our country was built.
This is not to say that America is an evil country; there is much good in America and in Americans. We see this now in the heroic efforts of first responders, and the intense passion and deep patriotism of those protesting for Black Lives Matter, across the nation. We see it in many other sacrifices made by Americans over the years. However, America can never be great (again?) in any meaningful way until we, as a country, repent of the evil of racism, for slavery, for years of Jim Crow laws, and for ongoing police brutality toward people of color. The only way to deal with sin is to confront it, confess it, and repent of it. As we wear a mask, we can think of George Floyd and pray for the courage to take the steps necessary, finally, to address the sins of our country. We can “offer it up” in connection with the suffering of Christ, who died for all of our sins, even those we as a nation would most like to avoid facing.
Finally, as we think of Christ’s suffering, we need to remember that his own death was caused by not being able to breathe. Crucifixion kills through asphyxiation, which cuts off breath torturously and lingeringly through the act of the victim rising up on the cross to take a breath and then sinking down when that becomes impossible. When the person can no longer rise up any more, death ensues. Like George Floyd, Jesus died surrounded by the law enforcement officers of his day (Roman soldiers), who no doubt saw in him a person inferior to them (as a non-Roman, a Jew, and a member of a colonized, subjected people), as well as bystanders, some horrified, others likely indifferent.
Romans differentiated what kinds of legal ramifications other Romans could experience. For example, a Roman citizen was not supposed to experience flogging, as Jesus did before his death. We see this clearly in Acts 22:25–26: “As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?’ When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘This man is a Roman citizen.’” No Roman citizen would ever be crucified. That punishment was reserved for non-Romans, slaves, and others considered low enough in the Roman hierarchical structure to warrant it. For this reason, Saint Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded, whereas Saint Peter, who was not a Roman citizen, was crucified (upside down according to tradition). Like George Floyd, Jesus suffered the agonizing, humiliating experience of being deprived of breath in a public execution by those who did not recognize his full humanity.
In Genesis 2:7 we read: “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Breath is God’s great gift to human beings. On the cross, that same God subjected himself to having that gift taken away from him by other human beings with arrogance, cruelty, and mockery. In light of that sacrifice, we need to bring all of our sins to him, particularly our national sin of systemic racism and sanctioned violence. There is much we can learn during this time of pandemic and the national unrest resulting from the sin of racism; offering up some of the small inconveniences the former lays upon us may help us to cultivate the humility and spiritual stamina needed to deal honestly and courageously with the latter.
Nancy Enright holds a Ph.D. from Drew University. She is a full professor of English at Seton Hall University and the Director of the University Core. She is the author of two books: an anthology, Community: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2015), and Catholic Literature and Film (Lexington Press, 2016) and articles on a variety of subjects, including the works of Dante, Augustine, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Her articles have appeared in Logos, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, and other venues.