WE HAVE SO MUCH MORE TO OFFER
For the moment, we live in a world where you can’t go for five or maybe ten minutes without hearing the word “virus” or having the spread of the coronavirus enter into your consciousness. It is regularly brought to our attention either because of the actual spread of the disease and the reasonable concern anyone should have or because of the absolute hysteria some have given into. For both of these reasons, this contagion will be a powerful force in our lives, at least for the time being.
No matter where you are in the spectrum of fear, from those who see this as no more dangerous than the flu (which kills tens of thousands in the US each year without shutting down the economy), to those who are imagining a worldwide catastrophe with millions of people dead, no one is immune to at least some level of concern regarding this disease. So what is the correct response for a Christian? And more importantly, does our response differ from someone who does not profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
Let’s begin by understanding our commonalities with those who do not profess faith in Christ. First, good Christians are generally called to be good citizens: we should all do our part as every good citizen should do in this challenging time: following good habits of hygiene (frequent handwashing, cleaning of commonly-touched surfaces, etc.). We should be cooperative with the authorities who will struggle to handle a challenge with such wide-ranging effects. And lastly, good citizens help their needy neighbors who may be affected–whether next door or across the globe–with whatever support they can. So there is much everyone should do, regardless of their beliefs or religious convictions. But are Christians called to respond any differently? Is there something more we should do? It turns out, the answer to those questions is a resounding YES, based on what true Christians are.
Christians are People of Faith
We believe that “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). Christians believe in the power of prayer, which is to say, the willingness of our God to hear us, and our willingness to pray and seek His mercy. In the very first moments of this Church Year, we were encouraged to pray that the coming year would be free from all forms of calamities, including “pestilence and disease.” At every service we pray for God’s mercy in all of its forms, and specifically “for healthful seasons, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times…for the sick and the suffering…for our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity”. In challenging times such as these, Orthodox Christians pray, both together in liturgical services and frequently and fervently in personal prayer, with trust in the One to Whom those prayers are directed.
Christians are People of Hope
Followers of Jesus Christ attempt to live first and foremost as citizens not just of the nations in which we reside as earthly citizens, but also strive to make our primary citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We have a perspective that goes beyond this world, which we know from Holy Scripture is passing away, regardless of the calamity of the moment. So we do not cling to this life in ignorance of the next. It is crucial for ourselves–and a crucial gift for the world–that we do our part to maintain both a healthy perspective and a virtuous attitude, not giving in to hype, uninformed fear, or unwarranted despair, regardless of how dire a situation seems to be or actually is. We don’t join in the useless desire to find a scapegoat to pin all of our fears and frustrations on. We “put not (our) trust in princes or sons of men, in whom there is no salvation,” (Psalm 146:3). We consume the news carefully, knowing that news media is a business with a proven profit plan (raising fear raises ratings which raises advertising rates, resulting in raised profit margins). We, therefore, thoughtfully collect relevant information as is actually needed, but we don’t let cable TV fear-mongering fill our homes from dusk to dawn. Those glued to their televisions act as if this world is all that matters and the next does not exist. Instead, we maintain environments suited for followers of the “Prince of Peace”. Our Archdiocese Convention theme reminded us for two years that “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us” (Philippians 4:13). Good words to be reminded of now. Also good to remember are the words a few verses before that one: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). The world needs this peace now as much as ever. As we interact with those around us, whether with or without words, we are called to share the peace of Christ.
Christians are People of Love
Jesus Christ defined love for us by His self-sacrifice on the Cross. After praying so hard that He sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, He rose up, received the kiss of betrayal, and accepted suffering and death so that we could not be held by them any longer. And just as we heard this past Sunday in the Gospel, He calls His followers to follow Him. Christians act first and foremost for the good of others, not reflexively obsessing about our own safety and concerns. I heard many questions and suggestions in the past week about how we should change what we do at Church to avoid contracting the disease (staying home from services, not kissing icons, refraining from Holy Communion or asking that disposable spoons be used), but not one question or suggestion for how our parish would respond to those in need. Christians are concerned first with the needs of others.
So what is needed from us? Precisely what we have, both as fellow-citizens with our neighbors of this world and as those who are working on citizenship in the next. We should offer good hygiene practices and as good neighbors help those with material needs. While doing that, we must not neglect what we have as Christians: the Faith, Hope, and Love of Christ that no one else can offer. We have seen the devastation of this disease in the lives of those it has touched directly, but devastation is now growing much faster and with more devastating effects among those who are not infected by anything other than fear. Whether we deal with those affected by the virus itself or infected by the pandemic fear that has followed it, this world is need of faith, hope, and love. OUR faith, hope, and love. We believe in a loving God, and as St. John the Evangelist tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear”. And with this much fear around us, we have lots of love we need to give!
But perhaps we find ourselves at this moment of need, but in need ourselves: in need of the very faith, hope, and love which we are supposed to have in abundance to offer to a world in want. If that is where we are, then that is where we are. But as I shared my homily this past Sunday, it is not where we need to stay. Orthodox Christianity operates primarily as a religion of repentance, where every breath offers us the opportunity to change and become more of who we claim and assume to be. From our Orthodox Christian point of view, our lack of virtue demonstrates our infection with sin, and our caring more about store shelves barren of earthly supplies than souls barren of faith, hope and love. If we were as concerned about our lack of faith, hope and love as we should, we would have very different reasons to contemplate not approaching the Chalice of Holy Communion, and these would be valid concerns.
In this season of Great Lent–this season of repentance–let’s respond to the coronavirus threat appropriately. This means we work to respond as good citizens, both of this world and the next, with the importance proportional to each. Let’s offer the world that which it needs much more than masks, hospital beds, or even a vaccine. And where we find we don’t have within ourselves to offer that which we should, let’s repent and work harder to be able to do so. What providence from God that this time of disease and fear has come during Great Lent, when the Church calls us to repentance more than any other time. The world is in great need of great Christians. Let’s repent, let’s rise to the occasion and offer the world what God so freely offers to us: faith, hope, and love.