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Reflection on the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Rev. Ben Hawley, S.J.


I feel like a sitting duck. You and me both. Sitting here waiting, not knowing what might happen next? Frogs? Hail?

Who will be next? If me, when? If you, what will I do?

It is the not knowing that is so hard to take. I sense the invisible but very real presence of the angel of death that slew the Egyptians’ firstborn sons. What magic lotion do I daub on the lintels to make the angel pass over me?

We are not accustomed to this. From Yankee ingenuity (which produced the Erie Canal, clipper ships, and white churches on town greens) to Tom Cruise with his Mission Impossible/can-do bravado, to men on the moon and Rovers on Mars—we who are educated and affluent and live in Washington, D.C. live in a dream world in which we are the authors our own destinies. It is the most precious dream our affluence can buy.

“Control” is the key word, and loss of control is terrifying. Restaurants, schools and universities, the Metropolitan Opera, the Kennedy Center—all closed. Empty planes, Amtrak stations and Metro stations. How long it will last? Where it is all going? So, in desperation we rush out to buy all the hand-sanitizer and toilet paper we can get. Toilet paper? Really?

We are beginning to discover a foundational truth of every aspect of human life for every human being everywhere, including us, captured in the First Step of the Twelve Steps:…we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable. This plague is forcing us to do what we rarely have to do - ADMIT that we are powerless over nearly every dimension of our lives, including but not limited to this virus.

But before we lose our sanity (and we will pray for its renewal in Step Two), let’s ask an important question:

Does God punish people through natural evil, through hurricanes, volcanoes, and plagues, what insurance companies call Acts of God?

Most insurance companies, not having in-house theologians, risk creating what

the Catholic bishops call “confusion among the faithful” through this theologically imprecise phrase —an "Act of God." We can suppose that God created—or allowed to emerge—climatological phenomena that destroy human life. Did God use these phenomena to punish humanity for some reason?

The Evangelical community believes so, based on the Jewish texts of the Bible. This community is usually quick to announce—on God’s behalf —which subset of human beings is responsible for the latest explosion of divine wrath. Homosexuals were the sinners, for example, when the AIDS epidemic struck down gay men, though not, oddly enough, the lesbian, bisexual nor transgender communities. (The theme of God using natural disasters to punish "sinners" does not appear in the New Testament.)

Recent evangelical pronouncements have been uncharacteristically restrained. They might have rightly claimed that all of humanity merits a wake-up call, but most of their leaders have not committed themselves.

So, whatever its cause, the virus makes us sitting ducks, just like the Jewish people of Jesus’ time.

What made Jesus so astounding to the people of his own day was his ability to breakthrough their powerlessness and offer words of encouragement so that they experienced hope and comfort.

I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments…forgot their pain. Or that…people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love…or that evil passions fled at his approach, and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose…from the grave when he called them, or that when he taught on the hillside the multitude forgot their hunger and thirst and the cares of this world…(Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 1897).

Last Sunday we met the Samaritan woman, the theologically astute, self-confident hippy living outside the norms of her community, who didn’t hesitate to confront Jesus, with great success, on his own theological terms, and who longed for the coming of the messiah. She recognized him, and her life was transformed with new meaning and purpose, despite her material poverty.

This coming Sunday we meet the man born blind whose only life is to sit at the city gate begging, unseeing and unseen. Jesus heals his blindness, and the man realizes he has promise of a new life.

Two Sundays from now we will meet Lazarus, friend of Jesus and brother of Mary and Martha, who, like us, falls sick—and dies. Jesus breaks through Lazarus' lack of life and restores him to family and community.

And finally on Palm Sunday, we will see the triumphant Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the Messiah who channels divine power, but who quickly becomes the crucified—and dead—Jesus of Good Friday. The Father breaks through that ultimate no-control, which is death, and restores his son to fullness of life.

These stories remind us that Jesus, the crucified and risen Son of God, comes to us in our spiritual poverty, when at last we realize that we cannot be masters of our own destiny, as our affluence had tempted us to believe.

These stories remind us that all in life is gift, to quote St. Ignatius, including our affluence. If God has gifted us with affluence, praise God! If not, praise God!

We engage God’s promises of help by praying through the first three Steps:

  • Admit that we are powerless, that our lives have become unmanageable;

  • Come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; and

  • Decide to turn our lives over to the love and mercy of God as we understand him.

If we hold desperately to any shred of belief that we have control over our lives, recall that right now we lack even the Eucharist celebrated together. We can stand in solidarity with the people living in the Amazon who remain without the Eucharist for lack of priests—in their no-control world.

It is precisely in our lack of control, our powerlessness that Jesus’ love for us becomes manifest. He promises to walk with us and use his power on our behalf.

So, let us:

“Lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees and make straight paths for our feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12).
“Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet you are with us. Your rod and your staff, they protect us” (Psalm 23).
“If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

None of this is easy nor automatic nor painless. We must live each moment of each day as it comes, feeling its burdens but inviting the Spirit of God into those moments of burden - in the world of the virus or the world without the virus. We are all vulnerable.

Jesus’ real presence, his message of hope and promise of assistance can help to lessen the feelings of vulnerability, risk and threat that sitting ducks necessarily experience. And his presence transforms our sitting duck outlook on life to that of the People of God, a Light to the Nations with our patron, the Prince of Peace.


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