The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years. It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease. SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity. Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.
The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation. The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young. My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week. (Obviously, he survived.)
We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease. It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease.
It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent. Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.
But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on. Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants. Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled. Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky. Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.
The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”.
In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term. It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments. Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way. In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God. And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.
Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French). We are told to practice social self- isolation. As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness. We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live. A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year. It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis. Now we have one for all of us at the same time.
We have an opportunity to take stock. What have we made our lives about? What have we made our civilization about? What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?
When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions. The first was hunger. The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from. The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.
Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle. Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.
In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” He had just completely fasted for forty days! I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands. But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way.
Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like. Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.
Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers. In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us. For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.
In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?”
I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump. And of course that’s not the point. This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place. It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc. It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.
It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth. For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation. I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc. Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.
This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end. Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family. Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.
The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself. In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet. He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have. Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””
I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever). Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen). But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc. To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap.
The promises of the Tempter are all empty. They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.
Now, back to quarantine. We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals. Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top. The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center. In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”