Ash Wednesday fell on February 26 this year, only five days after Italy recorded its first case of COVID-19. By the second week of Lent, the country was in lockdown. By Easter Sunday there were over 150,000 cases and nearly 20,000 deaths in Italy. As of May 10—the Fifth Sunday of Easter—there were over 4 million cases worldwide and nearly 300,000 deaths.
Quaresima o quarantena? The similarity between the Italian words for “Lent” and “quarantine” led many to observe that in most of the world the pandemic coincided with the season of Lent. The Holy Father himself remarked several times on the quarantena quaresimale (the Lenten quarantine). Various themes emerged: the lockdown as a time of enforced penance; as a personal desert like Christ’s forty days in the wilderness; as chance to reflect on the things we take for granted; opportunities for generosity, courage, and team spirit—especially among health care workers, police, firemen, and countless others with “essential” occupations; and as Pope Francis suggested, an occasion for believers and non-believers alike “to look with solidarity at others, especially those who are suffering.”
Lent has come to an end. Although Italy and other countries are cautiously beginning to negotiate “reopening,” the pandemic and the lockdown have not ended, and the fear and uncertainty have not subsided. At the conclusion of Lent Christians normally flock to the churches to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord. But this year, if people participated in the Easter liturgies at all, it was not in person, but at home via live streaming. The quarantena quaresimale gave way, depressingly, to the quarantena paschale—with no wordplay possible. It is Eastertide now, but the enforced penance endures. We don’t really know when this long Lent will come to an end. Some scientists fear we may still be living with this pandemic in 2022. God forbid!
What is the properly Christian meaning of the providential concurrence of the pandemic with Lent and Eastertide? What light can our faith shed on the darkness that otherwise prevails during these days? The paschal experience of our crucified and risen Lord shows us the path of grace that turns our own experience of suffering into an opportunity for conversion and transformation, a passage from death to life with our Redeemer who suffered and died for our sake.
This fundamental pattern of the liturgical year, with its specific grace in this season, seems all the more significant for us during this crisis. It may seem that the pandemic has taken Lent and Easter captive, but in liturgical time—in God’s time, that is—the reverse is true. The invitatory antiphon at the start of the Liturgy of the Hours every day in Lent was “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” During Easter it becomes “The Lord is risen, alleluia.” The divine judgment we experience during Lent as a call to repentance yields during Eastertide to the hope and promise of a share in the victory of our Risen Lord over sin and death. This deeply distressing crisis has sharpened our sense of the paschal mystery.
The book of Revelation is read continuously at the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours during the Easter Season. It helps us to interpret the terrible emergency of the coronavirus in the light of faith. We read in Revelation 5 that only the Lamb of God can take the scroll, break open its seals, and thus unlock the meaning of “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:9). The Lamb who unseals the scroll unlocks the meaning of this crisis as well. We cannot settle for secular interpretations that, ignoring the scroll in the grasp of the Lamb of God, find only a human meaning or no meaning at all in the emergency of this moment. In his outstanding volume on the book of Revelation, the Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina explained the intellectual roots of such secular interpretations:
The modern project since the Enlightenment has been driven by the conviction that human beings hold the scroll of destiny in their own hands and that the redemption of history’s victims lies in the future perfection of humankind. . . . In the postmodern world we now inhabit, the departure from the Christian narrative has proceeded a decisive step further. It is not that the scroll remains unopened . . . [but that] there is no scroll, no grand metanarrative tying everything together and holding out hope that the angel of death will be stayed by the hand of a just, merciful God.
During Holy Week, my brother sent me a photo of a baby hawk looking up at him from his front garden. Hawks normally avoid humans and their habitations, but here was one boldly getting used to the empty streets of Mahopac, New York. Indeed, YouTube is full of delightful and haunting video footage showing animals roaming free on the streets and sidewalks of the world’s cities: in Santiago, Chile, a puma jumping over a ten-foot security wall; thousands of seabirds occupying the Costa Verde in Lima, Peru; coyotes foraging in the streets of San Francisco; in Llandudno, Wales, wild goats munching at the hedges; wild pigs scampering along the boulevards of Paris; in Boulder, Colorado, mountain lions glaring out of the darkness of someone’s garden and a herd of elk gathered on a football field; jackals in Tel Aviv; monkeys frolicking in the pool of an apartment complex in Mumbai; deer lounging on a roadway in Nara, Japan—just to mention a few of the highlights.
The wild goats in Wales seem to be wondering where everybody has gone as they peek around corners and down alleyways, stepping cautiously up to the front door of a house and then moving nimbly along when it doesn’t open. It is amazing how quickly these creatures figured out that there was no danger of encountering humans on these abnormally deserted roads and lanes.
These temporary conditions have allowed wild animals to wander at will on the streets of our cities. What does it mean that God permitted (or willed) these conditions? This is surely a Lenten warning that carries a divine judgment. Perhaps, through the charming antics of these freely roaming beasts, God is saying something like this to us: “You are not invincible. See how suddenly you have disappeared from the highways and byways of twenty-first-century urban centers which are now occupied by creatures who normally live far from human contact, in the woods, in burrows deep in the ground, in the hills, in the rocks, on mountain tops, in the air.” Someone watching an eerily beautiful video of Rome in lockdown said that it looked as if a neutron bomb had just fallen. But that’s not right. COVID-19, as bad as it is, hasn’t killed us all off. It’s a catastrophe, of course, but not the big one. Lots of people are sick and many have died, but the great majority are well—even those most at risk—and we will survive this. The creatures have moved in only temporarily, but when we return to the streets, they will scurry back to their natural habitats. Since “we find ourselves at the moment not of the last things, but of the next to last,” Mangina writes,
this means there is still time—time to acknowledge the crucified not as our enemy but as our hope. . . . One of the ways in which the Apocalypse subverts our expectations is that it shows us a God who, although decidedly impatient with evil, is extraordinarily patient with his creatures. . . . He executes judgment on the world precisely in order to reclaim the world from the powers of death and hades. . . . God’s judgment of the world is a sign that he has not abandoned it.
Some level of lockdown still prevails—not only in Italy but almost everywhere in the world. We cannot miss the warning. Everyone is full of uncertainty. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White notes, “the most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, we will confront the worst economic crisis in history—with millions of people unemployed and massive government spending needed to bail out industries and banks and keep families afloat. The number of people in the world facing food shortages could double to 265 million. If millions of people either cannot get food because the supply chains have broken down, or cannot pay for it because they have run out of money, then there is the danger of massive social disorder. The U.N. estimates that $2.5 trillion will be needed to respond to the pandemic in the developing world. The fragility of institutions that only a few months ago appeared almost indestructible is now exposed for all the world to see. We have seen it, and it terrifies us.
On Palm Sunday, during the solemn reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, we heard our blessed Savior accused of saying, “I have the power to destroy the Temple of God and in three days build it up.” The words to which his accuser refers are recorded in the three synoptic Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel we read: “As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’” (24:1-2). Of course, the Church understands these words as a prediction of the destruction of the temple by Vespasian in A.D. 70, and of Christ’s own death and resurrection. But it has always struck me that Our Lord sought to put his finger on just the kind of unease we are feeling now, to expose the lurking possibilities of collapse in the whole fragile array of provisions that we have put in place to fortify ourselves against precisely these possibilities. Christ names our uncertainty: our sense, especially in times of crisis, that we are not invulnerable and that our institutions are anything but indestructible. It’s not just that we are getting sick and dying at the hands of an invisible foe. We are facing the humility of our limits.
Christians cannot be silent. If we do not declare what our faith tells us, the scroll will remain sealed, with its divine meanings locked within. Only if the scroll is opened and read to us will we know in faith that precisely because God loves us so much, we are experiencing his wrath—the wrath of the Lamb himself (Rev. 6:16–17). As Mangina explains, “[T]he divine wrath is the form that God’s love assumes when it encounters resistance on the part of the creature, it is the divine ‘no’ to the plight of humanity in this ‘present evil age’; and so Christ appears on the same side as the Father, equally the agent of God’s love and his judgment.” Christ enacts God’s decisive turning toward the world in grace, mercy, and peace. But some turn away, “misunderstanding God’s righteous judgment as an expression of his hatred.” It is providential that the pandemic of 2020 has coincided with Lent and Easter. There is still time to turn to him and live, for barely concealed in God’s judgment are his upwelling grace and mercy in the Lamb slain for our sake and risen now in glory. During Lent we sang, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Now at Easter we can sing, “The Lord is risen as he said, alleluia.”
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia OP, serves as Assistant Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome. He is a friar of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph (Eastern).
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?