Throughout the Old Testament, when evil befell the Israelites, they consistently interpreted their sorry plight as God’s righteous punishment for their sins. Three examples readily come to mind.
First, when the chief prince, Haman, convinced the Persian king, Ahasuerus, to destroy the Jews, Queen Esther – who was Jewish – besought the Lord to deliver her exiled people from the evil that had come upon them. In fasting, Esther prayed:
O my Lord, you only are our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is at hand. . . .You, O Lord, did take Israel out of all the nations. . .for an everlasting inheritance. . . .And now we have sinned before you, and you have given us into the hands of our enemies, because we glorified their gods. You are righteous, O Lord! . . .Remember, O Lord; make yourself known in this time of affliction and give me courage. (Esther 14:3-7)
Second, in exile, Daniel prayed “with fasting and sackcloth and ashes”:
O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love for those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. . . .And the curse and oath which are written in the law of Moses the servant of God have been poured upon us, because we have sinned against him. . . .O Lord, cause your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. … O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for your sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name. (Daniel 9:3-19)
And third, the Book of Numbers narrates that the people complained against God and Moses. They were disgusted with the manna and they had no water. In response, God sent fiery serpents among them, and all who were bitten died. The people came to Moses and declared: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” Moses did pray, and God commanded that Moses make a bronze fiery serpent and place it on a pole. Any of those bitten who looked upon the bronze serpent would live. (Numbers 21:4-9)
The point I wish to make here is not the one most readers may expect. I am not a prophet and do not claim to know the inscrutable mind of God. I do not know if He has sent, as in the Old Testament, this present pandemic upon the world as a just punishment for the world’s sins. It’s obvious that he has allowed it to engulf the world. My point concerns not the ways of God, but rather the minds of men, even the minds of Christians.
The world is of the mind that it can commit no evil that would merit God’s righteous judgment. The world deems itself independent of God’s judicious authority. The reason for this self-assurance is that the world is devoid of the sense of its own sinfulness. It is sunk in its own self-righteousness.
When I was a child, the secular world – and even many Catholic laity and clergy – were already convinced (and still are) that our world is never so sinful that a loving God would send tribulation upon us as retribution. While that belief may alleviate anxiety, or our consciences, it is not true to who we and the world truly are – sinful and in need of repentance. That attitude merely anesthetizes us in our sin, making us incapable of turning back to God.
In the face of evil – this pandemic – many people, probably most, will not repent of their sin, for they are blind to their own guilt. In this most holy of weeks, however, Christians – who should not be blind to the world’s sin or their own, are called to be today’s courageous Esther, supplicating Daniel, and interceding Moses.
We can repeat their prayers or make them a model for our own. We should be the ones who repent for our sin and the world’s, and in that ardent repentance should beg our loving and ever-faithful Father to free the world, in his mercy, from this pandemic.
Jesus declared, replicating Moses, that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must he be lifted up, that whoever believes that he is “I Am” will have eternal life (John 3:14-15 & 8:28). During the sacred Triduum, we are to behold, in repentance, faith and love, the lifted-up crucified and risen Jesus, he who is the great life-giving I Am.
That was Pope Francis’s message in his recent Urbi et Orbi blessing. He walked us to the foot of the Cross so that we might behold the crucified Jesus. He blessed us with a cruciform monstrance that contained the risen and life-giving Eucharistic Jesus. He imparted Jesus’ blessing upon the world that is suffering an evil beyond its imagining, in order to lead the world and the Church back to Jesus – a world and a Church in dire need of repentance and faith, that desperately need the assurance and joy of his resurrection.
On this day, Holy Thursday, we commemorate, we actually re-enact, Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. In this supper, Jesus washed the feet of his apostles. Today, however, because of the pandemic, that will not take place. Nonetheless, as we watch “The Mass of the Lord’s Supper” on our televisions and computers, we can wash the world’s sinful feet with our own repentant-tears.
We can beseech our Lord Jesus to pour out upon the world, from his pierced side, the cleansing water of his Holy Spirit, so that, in the coming months, the now faithless-world can once again enter opened churches to receive, as newborn Christians, his life-giving risen body and blood – the medicine of immortality.
*Image: The Brazen Serpent by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1619 [Museo del Prado , Madrid]. This dramatic scene (from Numbers 21) depicts the moment when Moses saves his people from the snakes sent by God as punishment for their lack of faith.