Many of us are have experienced a good deal of concern and even perhaps have had moments of despair in the past weeks as the COVID virus has taken over lives. Today I made the mistake of reading a news column, sent by a friend, about the spread of the virus. I opened the article and read. A smarter choice would have been to have read the scriptures. There was no new information in those pages, just fear and the type of cynicism which is born of a materialistic worldview.
Tonight a remedy came in the words of St. Paul from his letter to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” (Thes 5:16-17) I started to reflect on the circumstances about which this “least” of the Apostles might have given thanks. Imagine Paul, persecutor of the earliest Christians who had witnessed and participated in so many sanctioned murders. The same Paul who then endured prison, beatings, and hunger. Paul the Roman citizen, man of the first century, for whom famine, disease, and war were the norm rather than the exception. Paul the martyr, who gladly gave his life like so many other Christians. When did Paul really have the opportunity to rejoice? And about what?
Consider also one of Paul’s contemporaries, St. Ignatius the bishop of Antioch, disciple of beloved John the Apostle. He was condemned to death by the emperor Trajan in one of the many Roman purges. Ignatius famously implored his followers not to intervene. “I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me.” He wrote, “I beg you not to show an unseasonable goodwill toward me…I am the wheat of God, so let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” Only adamantine faith and unyielding hope can produce such effects. You cannot possibly read the letters of Ignatius and not see a man who rejoiced at the opportunity to give his life as “a sacrifice to God.” Ignatius did not curse the circumstances of his life, he gave thanks. When I look at these two towering figures I cannot help but ask, how can I live by their example today? How might I face the trials of my life with such clarity of heart and mind? Believe me, I have prayed about the spread of the COVID virus, but rejoice and give thanks…how?
Perhaps with the remembrance that whatever adversity comes, I am not alone. Remember, that we Christians are the people of hope. It is our battlecry against the powers of this world whether they be disease sweeping the globe, natural disaster, or the corrupt wills of men. No enemy has ever stood against the Christian hope in Christ. And this truly is, regardless of circumstance a cause of celebration. So I would say to myself and to you, do not be led by fear. Listen again to the words Jesus spoke, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (Jn 14:1) Consider, is this reassurance or command? Like it or not, as disciples of Christ, we do not have the luxury of despair. Grace has given to us a rare and frightening gift. Hope is not some pollyanna sentiment. Hope is the will to live and die for Christ. It is the virtue that stands in front of the clubs of racism, that stares down dictators. Hope sees the sick and the dying, ministers to them, offers comfort and keeps repeating these simple words, “Thy will be done.”