Covid-19 and the Season of Lent 2020

As the world comes to grips with the new reality of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), medical experts remind us of the seriousness of this pandemic which has affected and spread to all 7 continents.

They give us useful medical advices as to how to contain the virus like: washing of hands carefully, practicing hygiene, putting on face masks, social and physical distancing, lock down, self-isolation or self-quarantine, reminding all of us that the virus does not discrimate on whoever we are: rich or poor, young or old, male or female, celebrities or simple man on the street, healthy or sickly, white or black or brown or yellow, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, professor or students, doctor, nurse, therapist or patient, priest or religious or laypeople, etc. We are all together in this.

As for the Church of Indonesia during this time of pandemic, in general the Church follows the advisory precautions issued by the national government. Since March 15, all the Catholic Churches in Indonesia, following the “social and physical distancing” advice, had been told to suspend all daily and weekly Masses including the Holy Week Services 2020. Priests may privately celebrate Mass without the faithful. However, there are some Protestant and especially sectarian denominations who do not heed the advice from the national and local governments. One Minister on a Sunday morning have conducted the usual services with 800 people attending. Of those who attended some 100 were infected and had to be quarantined for 14 days in their respective homes. For the first time in my lifetime – and I hope it will never happen again, the Holy Week Services are not attended by the faithful. For the Holy Thursday Services, there will be no Washing of the Feet, for Good Friday there will be no kissing of the Cross, and Holy Saturday no celebration of the Easter Vigil. However, the catholic faithful are encouraged to follow the Holy Week Services by live streaming. In almost all the dioceses in Indonesia, live-streaming is used.

As we journey more deeply into this season of Lent within the context of the pandemic 19, God is calling modern man/woman to stop and pause for a while, reflect and return to God, their Creator. And the season of Lent is the right time for this to prepare for Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through true repentance and conversion of hearts and minds – the return to God. Is it merely co-incidence that corona virus happens during the season of Lent? I don’t think so. God must have a purpose. God does not allow evil to happen in this world and humankind without a purpose. In my reflection humankind has become increasingly advanced in technology and sciences, thus becoming more and more secular, putting God aside from the world stage. In other words, human beings are becoming in control of the world and the life of modern men and women to the point of disregarding His place in the world. They have long been running the world without God. They are becoming more and more intelligent and powerful so as to be able to conquer the moon and in not so distant future the planet Mars. Cosmonauts and astronauts have already encircled the outer space – which positively speaking is a wonderful fit of human being and science, but only to return to earth with a conclusion that, like the Russian first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who pierced – so to speak — the outer space, said, “there is no God!” He said this because he did not see God in space nor did he successfully put God in his tube. Which reminds me of the sin of pride by our first parents, Adam and Eve. They submitted to the enticement of the devil to eat the fruit which God had forbidden. They wanted to become like God and independent from God. The consequence of their action was they were banished from Paradise and from then on to suffer and die. But God in His mercy and compassion had promised them that He would send a Savior. Likewise, in the story of the Tower of Babel. People at that time tried to compete with God by building the Tower that would reach beyond the heavens. But God confused them with their language and thus the building of the Tower was a total fiasco. That was the end of the competition.

Furthermore, human beings are becoming so bright and smart that they can make nuclear weapons. Although they rationalize the creation of them as a means to self-preservation, nevertheless it is meant as well to destroy lives and defeat the potential enemies and so to conquer lands and expand their control. As it is being proven in the previous World Wars and now in the Middle East and in some parts of the world, the use of those deadly weapons has killed millions of innocent civilians and turned those otherwise beautiful countries into ashes. Greedy rich people and corporations have long been cutting or burning forests in many parts of the world especially the developing countries so as not only divesting the country and populations of their much-needed oxygen and livelihood, but causing as well erosion and the destruction of God given nature. The air we breathe is being poisened by too much gas in the atmosphere. Climate change is slowly but surely destroying nature and some world leaders are insisting that it is merely “fake”.

What otherwise clean and crystal clear waters in the rivers, seas and oceans have long been polluted, consequence of which is that many people drink polluted water and cause terrible sickness. Unethical doctors, governments, parliaments and unscrupulous judges approve abortion for so-called human right and for political reason, allowing the killing of innocent lives of human beings in the womb of the mothers, thus breaching God’s commandment “Thou shall not kill.” The same is true with those in power approving same sex marriage, justifying it as human right of individuals, thus again breaking the divine teaching of God: the sacredness of marriage, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”(Gen.19,6). Despite the constant appeals made by the United Nations to stop the wars or respect the ceasefires by warring parties, and the futility and meaninglessness of killing innocent men, women and children, some leaders turn a deaf ear and insists on executing their murderous plans to wipe up the enemy, thus resulting in the unprecedented loss of lives and millions of refugees running away from their country, risking their lives to seek asylum in other countries. While at the beginning of the first waves of refugees coming into the “new countries” some world leaders opened their countries for humanitarian reason, but, unfortunately and sadly, many, including those leaders who had opened their borders previously, have also followed the policies of the other leaders who chose to close their borders. Hence, innumerable refugees were and still stranded and left in the mercy of the United Nations to send the much-needed aid necessary for the continuance of the life of those refugees. On the other hand, hate speeches from some government leaders themselves continue to provoke some people to do just what has been advocated by their leaders thus re-emerging the evil spirit of racism among the citizens. On the other hand, while some billionaires or millionaires try to help the poor and the down trodden and a number of institutions that work for peace and justice and especially to provide necessary medical instruments like ventilators and protective gears, nevertheless there still remain some rich and the powerful politicians and ambitious leaders who remain selfish, thinking only of their own interests and their business so that the rich become richer while the poor become poorer, hence widening the gap between the rich and the poor in the world. In some parts of the world, the right of people to worship is being breached, while in some country, Moslems are not being treated as legal citizens of the country they have come to love so much. Lastly, today as never before truth is relativized. Truth is said to be fake, and the fake is said to be the norm and the truth. Indeed, a complete reversal of reality. Sad to say, many people are confused and if they are not careful, they will wrongly support the lies that are spreading in the social media.

All these, to name just a few evils that modern man/woman has been committing and continue to commit, contribute to the destruction of the world and of human life. And so, God allows this “angel of death” which does not discriminate on whoever we are: rich or poor, young or old, male or female, celebrities or simple man on the street, healthy or sickly, white or black or brown or yellow, catholic, Christian, Islam, Buddhist or Hindu, professor or students, doctor, nurse, therapist or patient, priest or religious or laypeople, etc. We are all together in this.

In the Christian world, Lent is given to us to prepare for Easter, the Lord’s Resurrection.It is the time to prepare catechumens for baptism. But Lent is also a time of conversion, of doing penance for the sins of humankind. Lent ushered in on Ash Wednesday, beginning with the rubbing of ashes on the forehead, a powerful symbol to remind Christians and modern man/woman of the true meaning of life andwherehe/sheisgoing. The readings, especially the Gospel of Matthew, remind us of the teachings of Jesus Christ specifically of the three pillars of conversion, namely Prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer, which invites us all to return to God, who is the source and meaning of human life and the world. is a call to return to Him who is God and to acknowledge Him as Creator, thus putting Him, not man who is a mere creature, in His proper place in the world. He is not at the periphery of our life nor is He unconcerned with the sufferings of His children, but right in the middle of the human kind’s hopes and fears, joys and sadness, struggles and challenges. He is the one in control, and not the coronavirus. Lent is a time for us to pray in the depths of our heart in order to connect with Him lest modern man/woman completely abandons Him. They may abandon Him, but God in his loving mercy and compassion will never abandon His people. Lent is also a time for fasting not only from food and drink, but also and especially from sin. It is a call to discipline our selfish desires and urges, and be in solidarity with millions of people in the world who go hungry. Lent is a time also for almsgiving, to think not only of ourselves but also of other people especially the poor and the downtrodden, the afflicted and the sick, the hungry and the thirsty, those who need our support, to do justice to many people who are mistreated, persecuted and millions of suffering humanity in this world. These are the three pillars by which not only Christians but also those who are touched by Jesus teachings can do.

The Feast of Passover which has its roots in the Old Testament is commemorated and celebrated by the Jewish people as part of their long-standing tradition which dates back in the time of the Exodus. God in His loving care for His suffering people in the hands of the iron-handed Pharaohs had seen this event unfolding. He intervened and one day appeared to Moses and Aaron as we read in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 12:1 – 8:11-14.) which here I quote only the pertinent passage:

This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girded, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the Lord. For on this same night I will go through Egypt, striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast, and executing judgement on all the gods of Egypt – I, the Lord! But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you, thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you. This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.

In connection with the coronavirus pandemic currently plaguing the world, the angel of death is still hovering around the world. The world (i.e. human kind) is suffering and is being called to share in the sufferings and death of Jesus on the Cross. But just as the angel of death is still hovering over the world, human kind is finally putting their hopes and expectations to God and/or the Divine Being that this angel of death may finally pass over the face of the earth and let the angel of life and light instead make an impact. When that happens, then that will be our true Passover – the feast of Easter, of the Lord’s Resurrection. The blood of the lamb in the Old Testament points to the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. It is His blood that would save humankind from the darkness of sin. His blood is truly life- giving. In the Eucharist, we are invited to partake of His Body and Blood as spiritual food for our pilgrimage on the way to heaven, our true home.

In the Christian liturgy, this Passover feast which we commemorate and celebrate beginning on Holy Thursday until the eve of Easter, Jesus has made two significant actions: i.e. the Lord washing the feet of His apostles and changing the bread and the wine into His Sacred Body and Blood thus, instituting the Holy Eucharist. On these two important points, I would like to reflect on:

  1. The washing of the feet

Jesus gives us a concrete example during the Last Supper in manifesting His love and concern for His apostles and all of humankind., which will peak on Good Friday, when He sheds His blood literally and dies. He is teaching us to serve other people, especially the poor and the down-trodden in society long forgotten. Serving our neighbors is a concrete way of showing that spirit of solidarity in a world torn by divisions. Especially in a time like ours today the humble service we do for and with our neighbors is a symbol of that washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus. We are called to help one another and to reach out to those in need in our society and our world and to forget our selfishness. As I write this reflection, I am wearing a black T-Shirt on which is printed a slogan:

Less for self, More for others, Enough for all.” Responders or the front liners – medical doctors, nurses, therapists, drivers of ambulances, and even janitors in hospitals – have heroically exemplified and shown their spirit of solidarity and sense of humanity as they sacrifice their lives in order to save the lives of other people. As a matter of fact, in trying to help and save the patients, some of them succumbed to death, in imitation of Christ who gave His life as a ransom for many. They teach us unconditional love and sacrifice for the sake of the beloved others. 

  1. The institution of the Holy Eucharist

As I mentioned above, the Holy Eucharistis Jesus’ gift to the Church to partake of His Body and Blood as a memorial of Him. It is participating in His passion, death and resurrection. He is the Bread of Life that gives us so much hope and courage in this time of difficulties, in this time of fear, anxiety, stress, uncertainty and insecurity. He is our Hope and our Strength. We hope that God in Jesus Christ is faithful and will certainly fulfill His promises. He will complete what He has begun. It is a living hope rooted in faith in the divine salvation in Christ (Galatians 5, 5). He is also our strength in our time of fear, anxiety,

uncertainty and insecurity. Many times, in the Bible,we meet the sayings: “Fear not! I am with you always.”

In his meditation during his “Urbi and Orbi” on Good Friday Service before the steps of the Vatican and empty plaza, Pope Francis read from the Gospel of Mark 4, 35 – 41 which tells of the “Stilling of the Storm” by Jesus in Lake Galilee. He then developed it in connection with the pandemic saying that we are like those apostles who were afraid, our boat being tossed about by the strong gusts of wind. When the apostles finally remembered that Jesus was with them, they woke him up from his deep sleep appearing undisturbed, and they said: “Teacher, do you not care we are about to perish?” Jesus woke up and said to the wind: “Quiet! Be calm!” And the lake became calm. And Jesus then confronted them saying: “Why were you afraid? Why did you not believe?” “Like the apostles”, the Pope continues, “we are all together in this boat. We are called to work together, help one another and think of others, forgetting ourselves.” With Jesus on their side, they need not fear. And so, with us. We believe that Jesus is with us in this pandemic. He assures us that this virus will pass over and need not be afraid as we journey on this world and heeding the precautionary advices from medical doctors and scientists to lockdown, use facemasks, etc. to minimize contagion. He is beside us and helping us. God in Jesus cares for us His children. He loves us and will not forget us. “Even if a mother forgets her baby, I will never forget you” says the Lord (Is. 49, 15 – 16). To the Psalmist: “Be still. Know that I am God.” (Ps. 46,10). God is in control, not the coronavirus! He will see to it that the angel of death will soon pass over and send the angel of light and life to renew the world. Hopefully, the “new normal” will give humankind the lessons to be near God and to think that He, not the power of darkness, is in control; the lesson for us humankind to unite and work with and for one another instead of fostering division and gross individualism; the lesson for world leaders for global cooperation instead of competing and playing politics; to love others instead of competing with one another; to work together to make this world a better and more humane place to live in instead of inventing weapons of mass destruction to destroy human lives and this beautiful God-given planet; to respect the dignity of one another as human persons as God intended it to be instead of trampling on their rights; to work for peace and justice instead of making wars; and finally to build bridges instead of walls. It is a call for all of humanity to leave behind the “old normal” and embrace the “new normal” that this pandemic wants to bring home to the consciousness and awareness of human kind.

As a final conclusion, let me close this reflection by coming back to the Pope’s meditation where He said: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.” “In this storm”, the Pope continues, “the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters. 

Immaculate Heart of Mary, intercede for us, your children.

Happy Easter! 

  (Ref.: CICM Asia News Bulletin, March – April 2020)

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