A friend wrote recently, “What a Lent this has been!” The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting life — and death — worldwide, and in ways few could have imagined a few short months ago. Those suffering from the virus are quarantined at home and in hospitals, with others “in an abundance of caution” are quarantining themselves at home. As I write this, several cities have effectually shut down, with all of us being asked to remain at home except for essentials like food and medicine. A new term, “social distancing” has found its way into our lexicon.
All of this has hit us Christians as we have entered into the holy season of Lent, the “forty days” of preparation and reflection leading to Easter. With health officials advising us to avoid groups larger than ten, and with uncertainty about the various modes of transmission of the disease, bishops around the world have suspended the public celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist. We clergy would normally be gearing up for Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Now, even those celebrations cannot take place with an assembly, and many bishops have declared the sacraments of initiation which would normally be celebrated during the Easter Vigil will now be postponed until Pentecost. For those of us in ministry, clergy and laity alike, all of this goes against every fiber of our being. This is just not the way things are supposed to be! And yet, here we are. “What a Lent this has been!”
And then it hit me. The word we’re using so frequently now, “quarantine”, can perhaps help us make some sense of this. “Quarantine” derives from the Latin (and then Italian) word for “forty”. By the mid-17th Century, it was associated both with the forty days of Lent but also with something completely different. Ships arriving from foreign ports to ports such as Venice would be forced to remain offshore for forty days to make sure they were not carriers of plague or other illnesses. Only later did “quarantine” come to mean any period of enforced isolation. It’s original meaning revolved around those forty days.
Jumping even further back in time, the number forty in Hebrew carried its own significance, a significance we find well documented in Hebrew scripture. In Hebrew usage, forty represents any period of human testing and preparation for a future mission. Consider a few examples: the forty years Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert; the forty days and forty nights of the great Flood; or, in the New Testament, the forty days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry. In every case, the people involved were not merely times of penitence and testing. There was more to it than that: there was always a significant new mission or relationship at the end of the forty days: the Israelites entered in the Promised Land; after the Flood, God enters into a new covenant with Noah and his descendants; and, after his temptations, Christ begins his public ministry. Our forty days of Lent lead us to the new life given to us at Easter, a new life that is intended to be lived out in a new way in our relationships and caring for each other.
It is here that perhaps our current reality can piece all of this together. Lent is, in truth, a quarantine. It is a period of forty days in which we forsake our normal ways of doing things in order to prepare for the new life of Easter. We endure isolation and discomfort during this quarantine, not simply for the good of our physical health but our spiritual as well. This quarantine, we hope, gives us a chance to eliminate the disease of sin in our lives, and to help us grow stronger and ready to meet the demands of living as the “priests, prophets and kings” our baptisms have called us to be. We have been immersed into the life of the Trinity, which means we too must live as the Trinity lives: by giving life to others and providing for them (God the Father), by pouring out our own lives for others (God the Son), and for advocating for and enflaming others with the love of God (God the Spirit). That’s quite a task, and it demands that we be in good shape to carry it out! That’s the purpose of Lent; that’s the purpose of our spiritual quarantine: to rid us of the disease of sin and grow in spiritual health.
During this time of quarantine, we pray for all who are suffering from the Coronavirus and their families. During this time of quarantine, we pray for those who are suffering from its long-term effects, such as those who have lost their jobs or other fallout from this crisis. During this time of quarantine, may we seek healing on every level so that, once strengthened on every level we may enter into our new Easter life with joy and enthusiasm.