Living in China during this time has been like living in an island lighthouse during a stormy flood. My wife and I here when the virus started. We were in the midst of the troubled waters just as the storm began to rumble, while the people of the rest of the world slumbered peacefully nearby. We underwent the shutdowns and quarantines almost two months before Canada did. (If you think seeing Edmonton fall silent has been strange, imagine seeing it happen to Hong Kong and Macau.)
At the time, everywhere else seemed comparatively safe, but, like the watchman powerlessly watching the angry waters rising, I knew eventually the flood would crash over the shore and wash over the nearby town. Sure enough, now the raging waves have barrelled past me and swallowed up the land behind me. Through my computer, I see the people back home engulfed in the fear and reality of this pandemic, in this flood that goes up to their necks so that they can barely keep their head above the water (Isaiah 8:8).
What this means is that, while this crisis was gradually mounting up around me, I’ve had some time to reflect and pray about it. It’s obviously tempting to reassure my Canadian readers that I’m sure it will all be OK because, hey, we’ve already weathered it here in China, so you’ll be alright, too. But I can’t make that promise, and, frankly, there’s something more important I want to say. Behind the frightening danger here is a lesson that I don’t want us to miss.
I’ve heard a lot from people back home that everything feels “surreal” now. It’s surreal because nothing is the way we’re accustomed to. People aren’t hustling the streets, businesses are closed, and a mute sense of concern fills everyone’s hearts.
But is that really so surreal? Could it be that our normal lifestyle is what’s really surreal? Imagine being a guardian angel watching human society: These immortal beings, made in the image of God, redeemed by God’s unfathomable death, hurtling through the enchanted cosmos on missions from their Creator, spend their days bustling around grumbling about slow traffic and spotty Internet connections, only occasionally thinking about God. That is surreal. But it’s easy to fall into that kind of comfortable drudgery when everything in society is clicking along in a familiar, predictable way.
With this crisis, we have all suddenly turned into children. As a teacher, you observe how children play amongst each other, and it is clear that none of them is “in charge”. Some might be more confident than the others, but none of them knows any more than their peers, and they’re all making their game up as they go. As adults, we pretend we’re better than this, and that we really know what’s going on.
But as Augustine wrote in his Confessions, adult society is just as much child’s play as what kids are doing on the playground, and this virus has proved it. The COVID-19 crisis is unexpected and unprecedented, so no one, including our leaders and professionals, really has any idea what to do. This is scary to us because it feels like there are no adults in the room (but should it be? Psalm 146:3 warns us not to put our trust in princes who cannot save).
If the virus has shocked us into a kind of hushed anticipation and sense of heightened danger and alertness, we should remember that this is probably a little closer to how we should be living. In fact, this is probably how people in the Bible experienced the world. If you read Scripture, you don’t get the impression that they saw a world as a safe or stable place. The threat of war and destruction constantly loomed over the people’s heads. The possibility of famine or plague sweeping through the land was always haunting the back of their minds. Even the ground beneath them was liable to break open and swallow them up at any moment.
We don’t think of this as our world. We think the ground is firm and solid under our feet. But, as John Buchan (who served as Canada’s Governor-General) wrote in his novel The Power-House, “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.” We live in the same world as the Bible portrays; we just fool ourselves into forgetting that fact.
This may seem stressful. You may be feeling exactly that kind of stress right now. And this is why the Israelites often looked to other kingdoms, which seemed more militarily powerful or technologically advanced, to provide them with some kind of security. The Book of Isaiah records that the Jewish people even turned to Egypt for military support, the very kingdom that had enslaved them and from which God had so powerfully delivered them (Isaiah 30:1-3, 31:1).
But this awe should be paired with hope. When the Bible tells us that God loves us, this should not just fill us with warm, snuggly feelings: it should embolden us, fire us up, and bring us unspeakable joy. The God who rules over the plagues and the world’s military-industrial complex is on our side.
We don’t know why this virus is happening. We can’t claim that the virus is some sort of punishment, like some overzealous people have done; the Book of Job and the words of Jesus (Luke 13:1-5) should shut our mouths before we ever make a claim like that. All we know is that it’s happening as part of God’s plan, a plan that is for our good. We’ve forgotten how exciting it is that God is in control; it’s become just a Christian cliche for many of us. Maybe this terrible crisis will help us recover just how thrilling that fact truly is.
The Book of Isaiah is constantly berating the people of Jerusalem for living in so much decadence and luxury that they forget to trust in God (something Augustine also noticed about luxurious societies in his City of God). What is especially alarming is that Isaiah makes it clear that they don’t think they’ve forgotten God. They still call on His name; they still go to the Temple (Isaiah 29:13; 58:1-4). But, when push comes to shove, they find their security and their hope in false idols like wealth, power, and foreign alliances. What about us? Who do we really trust?
The God of Scripture reveals something shocking about Himself: He is the Lord over COVID-19. Calling Him this might sound horrifying, even blasphemous, but remember that this is exactly how it would have sounded to the ancient Israelites, whose literature and liturgy shows God riding on thunderstorms bearing deadly plagues in His hands. Have we forgotten the stories of what God did in Egypt during the Exodus, or have we just heard them so many times that it no longer affects us? Let’s say it again, so we never forget it again: Jesus is the God of the coronavirus.
How should we react to this? We should be filled with two emotions: Awe and hope.
Awe, because God has reminded us that, with a snap of His fingers, He can halt all the seemingly unstoppable economies of the world. The things we trust in rather than God have been exposed as powerless frauds before His omnipotent will. We should never lose a holy respect – which the Bible even calls “fear” – for God’s majesty, which is both awesome and awful. The Lord Whom we call on to help us at Mass is a God of unfathomable power, and we can’t appreciate that without understanding that with this power comes some danger. As C.S. Lewis put it, He’s not safe, but He’s good.
Annie Dillard once wrote: “I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?…It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
Our church buildings used to remind us of this. If you have time during your quarantine, you can now virtually visit the breathtaking Sistine Chapel in the Vatican museums; it might put all of this back into perspective for you. He’s the One in charge, both when things seem safe and when they don’t (and things are never really safe).
He always has a plan for everything that happens, a plan that is working out for our good (Romans 8:28). We’ve forgotten how exciting this is; it’s become just a Christian cliche for many of us. Maybe this terrible crisis will help us recover just how thrilling it really is.
Yes, the virus is rightly terrifying, and we should mourn every soul we lose to it, but we should not mourn without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). God is not just Lord over the virus, but the Lord suffering from the virus, undergoing it with us, bearing our diseases on the Cross (Isaiah 53:4). Isaiah portrays Jesus both as liberating Messiah and as Suffering Servant, so let us turn to Him as both as we cry out for Him during this catastrophe.
One last thing I want to share from my lighthouse here in the far East: The virus has turned all of us into expats. Living in China, I often miss being in Edmonton. My only connection to my friends and family back home is digital. The nearest church here is an hour a way, and it is hard to build a community of believers. But, now, everyone in Edmonton is in my situation: Everyone is an exile, both from the sacraments and, to some extent, from each other, deep in the wilderness of social distancing. We all share a kind of loneliness now. We are each in our own lighthouse.
This, too, has a blessing hidden in it. We all recognize how Lenten this crisis is – remember that the word “quarantine” literally means “forty days”. We are in the desert in more ways than one. But the people of God were always called to turn the desert into a blooming garden, a new Eden, and God promised He would accomplish exactly this (Isaiah 35:1-2).
This is the time to embrace in a deeper way what St. John Chrysostom says: The Christian household is the domestic church. This is the time for us to find new ways to turn our homes into parishes, into monasteries, into chapels where our everyday life is infused with the spirituality of the Mass. This will not be easy. The wilderness is a hard place to live. But the Spirit has blown us here, and will not abandon us out here.
–Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.