In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should all follow the directives of public health officials and heed the advice of medical experts. Christians are no different from others in this respect. We share the health challenges and personal anxieties of all our neighbors, and we bear the same responsibilities during this crisis.
What Christians may perhaps offer is a special sense of the times we are traversing. Cities are locked down, borders closed, schools shuttered; production and distribution lines have unraveled; work and retirement income is threatened. These disruptions have cascaded in ways that seem novel and imaginatively overwhelming. All of a sudden, we see before us something we have perhaps talked about before, but never really faced: the way, as societies, we have allowed our personal lives to become enfolded in and seemingly dependent upon intricate and vast networks of collective construction that have diminished our humanity. Suddenly we must “go home,” stay with our families, turn to ourselves. And we are, surprisingly, afraid!
Yet “going home” is, in fact, an enormous gift. For two weeks, a month, two months—we shall see—we have been granted a “fallow time,” in which we can return to our roots as human beings. Scripture calls such a time a “Jubilee” in Leviticus 25. The Jubilee year falls within the category of “sabbath,” the great moment of entering into the creating power and beauty of God; it comes after counting a “sabbath of sabbaths,” that is, 49 years:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field (Lev 25:10-12 RSV).
“You shall return to your family.” During this time, work ceases as we live off what we are given. The brother or sister who is poor is brought in; the stranger and sojourner are kept safe. And “you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God” (25:17).
The Jubilee is not simply a time of rejoicing. It is not simply a time to play enforced Scrabble games, let alone turn on the gaming console. It is a time to turn to God, to reckon God’s gifts, to tend and cherish common responsibilities and the life given through birth, children, and parents. No flying about the globe, no boardroom deals, commercialized sociality, mass political campaigns, pushing to get ahead, or making one’s mark. Instead, this is a time for living with the gift of life God has provided. In doing so, God’s own being and grace is unveiled to the otherwise distracted and self-absorbed creature. “You shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.” Dare we say that it is providential that the Time of the Virus has come in Lent? Not for penitence alone, but for the sabbath of sabbaths—for a place where prayer and thanks are actually nurtured and where they can flourish. This is something Christians should not only ponder, but embrace and share, in a posture not of resignation, but of joyful hope.
This Time of the Virus unveils some less joyful things for Christians as well, failures in our common witness over the years. How is it that we have so little to say in formal prayer about these matters? The last century began with perhaps the most destructive pandemic in history: the 1918 flu epidemic that killed over 50 million and which continued afflicting wide parts of the world in the wake of World War I’s confusion. Then we had a pandemic of almost equally horrendous mortality, the HIV/AIDS crisis that lingers. And only ten years ago, we saw hundreds of thousands die in the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic. Yet our prayerbooks have no collects for diseases like this, even those undergoing proposed revisions.
It is as if the last century did not happen (let alone the history of the world). Our litanies are slimmed down and rarely said; the older seventeenth-century collects and thanksgivings for times of “plague” are long excised. We draw back from considering the ways God might be at work in these tragic and overwhelming events. To pray (as the 1662 BCP put it) that God might “have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality” (turning us to Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites in the desert, or David with his ill-advised census and its consequent “pestilence”), disturbs our assumptions about God’s benign supervision and our ability to control suffering. Whether we reject such considerations or not, a failure to engage them has left many Christians wandering in the darkness of the moment.
Indeed, the Time of the Virus has exposed deep ironies that Christians should confront, but mostly have not. Since assisted suicide was legalized and then mandated among medical professionals in Canada five years ago, over 7,000 Canadians have killed themselves with the assistance of medical personnel and state officials. Most of these persons were aged. And at the moment that COVID-19 reared itself in Canada in February, the government unveiled proposals to extend assisted suicide to those for whom “reasonably foreseeable death” was not imminent—including the mentally ill. Yet around the world, we are rightly hearing voices ask, “Coronavirus hits ill and disabled people hardest, so why is society writing us off?” As politicians and pundits tell us not to worry because COVID-19 is only dangerous for the elderly and those with already compromised health, one wonders how it is that a person’s value has been so easily reduced to the triage calculations of medical costs and limited equipment. Christians do have something to say about all this, but we have failed to speak much about it over the last few years.
The Time of the Virus is thus both a gift and a provocation for Christians—not only for our personal faith, but for what we have to offer others. The Levitical proclamation—“return to your home,” for “you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God”—is a gospel for the world, but only if taken seriously by those who have been entrusted with its deep assurances.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.