With the exponential upswing of COVID-19 cases worldwide, everyday life has been disrupted, if not turned on its head, almost overnight. Our accustomed ways of relating and interacting—at work, school, church, and recreation—have already been radically changed, and with the possible collapse of entire economies, there are still greater changes afoot. But there is another disease that is spreading just as fast: fear. Luckily, we can do something about this disease: we can fight it by spreading the equally contagious antidote of courage.
The word “encourage” means “to give heart,” and each of us can do that in a hundred different ways over the course of the day. True, travel has been severely curtailed in many places, whether by government decree or by prudence. But for most of us, there are other channels of communication that can be put to good use; for example, we can call or Skype with those who are far away or in quarantine or isolation. And no matter where we live, most of us have neighbors. Whether we already know and love them, or have ignored or avoided them, or simply never had time to get to know them, there is no time like the present crisis to reach out and find out how they are doing, and to offer a helping hand.
We can let government restrictions and the interruption of our normal life frustrate and anger us, or we can see them as opportunities to be creative in thinking up new ways to combat loneliness. We can grumble, or we can value every encounter we do have and use it to strengthen the bonds of whatever community we find ourselves in—or whatever new forms of community may arise from all this. We can be concerned only for our own family and friends, or we can extend that love and concern to every person who might cross our path. There were already countless people living in fear and loneliness and isolation before this latest string of events unfolded; perhaps now is the moment to reach out and invite them back into community with others.
Jesus warns us that as the chaos of the “last days” increases, “the love of most people will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). We should take this warning to heart, and not let it be said of us. We must stretch our hearts and minds to include the rest of the world in our prayers, especially heads of state and government agencies whose directives are affecting entire nations, and the healthcare professionals facing overwhelming needs with inadequate resources.
In these uncertain times, all of us will be called upon to sacrifice something.
Could it not be that through what is happening, God is imploring us to return to him and the way he wants us to live? In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, we are instructed to be the hands and feet of Jesus to comfort and provide for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the lonely, and the sick. Each of us can do this by caring for our neighbor and ministering to those who are falling sick, or to those overcome with fear, worry, hopelessness, or desperation.
Given the number of incidents set off by panic (for example, the runs on groceries and hygiene products), this pandemic is sure to drive plenty of people over the edge. Even if it is over relatively quickly, there will still be enormous social and economic costs. Instead of fearfully focusing on these, let’s look for the very real opportunities this crisis is giving us—not least, the chance to put into action the command of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Putting these words into practice will mean something different for each of us, but in every case, it will bring out the best in us, and carry a blessing with it.
One of the hallmarks of the Lenten season we are now in the midst of is the ancient and time-honored practice of sacrificing something in preparation for Easter, in gratitude for Jesus’s death on the cross—the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. In these uncertain times, all of us will be called upon to sacrifice something: at very least, the comforting familiarities of our daily lives. For many, especially those who work in healthcare, much more is already being demanded.
Whether this crisis affects us in a relatively minor way, or whether it brings us face to face with death, let us pray that we are given the bravery, energy, and selflessness to fulfill the words of Jesus: “Whatever you do for one of the least of these…you do for me” (Matt. 25:40). And as we look forward to the Holy Week and reflect on Christ’s sacrifice, may it touch and change us as never before. And let us never forget that this sacrifice, as sobering and terrible as it was, gains its deepest and most wonderful meaning by what came after it—and therefore after every instance of death and destruction: the hope and promise of the resurrection.