How do we put into words what we are experiencing in these days? The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise across the nation and world, despite limited testing. Medical personnel are anticipating how to manage a huge influx of patients. Some hospitals are making agonizing decisions about how to triage patients or choose who gets a ventilator. The economic consequences are dramatic. Business owners realize that they may not be able to stay afloat. Last week 3.3 million people filed for unemployment.
I am not trying to paint a pessimistic picture so that you might give up or become fearful. We must resist the temptation to give in to fear. At the same time, it is important to maintain a realistic view of the situation at hand. Being realistic helps us to maintain a balanced perspective.
Some people are refusing to look at the long term consequences. They continue to gather and socialize, as if nothing has changed. So, they are increasing the risk of transmission of coronavirus for everyone else. Every one of us can be a carrier to others who are more vulnerable. I urge you to practice solidarity by thinking of the least in our midst – especially the elderly and those with compromised health conditions. Our actions affect everyone around us. We are co-responsible for the common good of society.
Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They spend their time watching the news, and their minds are saturated by it. For them the danger is to be totally consumed by the pandemic and its economic consequences. Over consumption of the news is also not living in reality. It can block out the reality of God’s presence. We can become myopic, focused only on COVID-19, and blind to how the Lord is present in this moment.
Limit your news consumption, while taking time to read the daily Scriptures. In the desert one does live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Reading the Scriptures is one of the best ways to keep a sane perspective.
In God’s providence, the readings for this Sunday offer a hopeful message for those experiencing destruction and death. As Ezekiel wrote the first reading, he was living in exile in Babylon. The Babylonian army had destroyed Jerusalem. They captured the Jewish king Zedekiah and his sons, who were executed in front of their father Zedekiah. Then they blinded him and took him to Babylon with other prisoners.
Imagine how the people of Israel felt! They had lost hope. In fact, immediately before today’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel wrote: “The people keep saying: ‘Our bones are dried up; our hope is lost; we are done for.’” (Ez. 37:11) They had every reason to give up hope. The city of Jerusalem had been surrounded and under siege for two and a half years. Finally, the city and the temple were destroyed. Then the people were deported to Babylon where they lived in exile for 49 years. They doubted that God was with them. They doubted God’s promise to save them.
Yet, Ezekiel painted a future of amazing hope. Through him, God said to the people: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!” Ez. 37:12-13
How could Ezekiel be so upbeat and hopeful? He didn’t merely focus on the destruction all around him. Instead, he maintained a balanced perspective by listening to God’s voice. How can we be hopeful prophets in our day, like Ezekiel? How can we be a voice of hope to the elderly who are isolated, to the sick, to those working in healthcare, to those with a devastated business or to the jobless?
This week a reporter asked Pope Francis what he would tell men, women and families who live in fear due to the pandemic, the pope replied: “The last thing I would do is tell them something. . . . What I try to do is make them feel that I am close to them. Today the language of gestures is more important than words. Of course something should be said, but it is the gesture of sending them a ‘greeting’ that is most important,” he said.
Pope Francis encourages gestures of ‘closeness’. That is a way of describing solidarity. We will be close to people if we see them as family, as brothers and sisters. In a time of “social distancing,” here are a few ways to express closeness. Tell others that you are praying for them. Call those who are most isolated, or deliver a meal to their doorstep. If you are doing okay financially, then donate your check from the Federal government to a needy family or to entities that are helping others.
In addition, we can express closeness by being a voice of hope. We need to be close to people with assurance that God is with us. The prophet Ezekiel went into exile in Babylon together with the rest of Israel. He suffered just like them, but he fed them with God’s Word. He was beside them with steadfast faith. He was a voice of hope because he kept his relationship with God intact.
In fact, we need to help people see that God is using this moment in a powerful way. The coronavirus is a stark reminder of the weakness of human flesh. Our lives are so fragile. Sometimes we forget that. Yet, our frailty actually opens us to God’s power. It puts us in touch with our need for God.
Aware of human frailty, the psalmist teaches us how to cry out to the Lord with faith. Psalm 130 states: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice!” Yet, the psalm ends with the hope that ‘All shall be well.’ “For with the LORD there is kindness and with him plenteous redemption; and he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.” (Ps. 130:8) All shall be well.
As people who are gifted with the Holy Spirit, we ought to be more hopeful than Ezekiel and more trusting than the psalmist. St. Paul said to the Romans, “The Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.” (Rom. 8:11) The Spirit who raised Jesus dwells in us. The Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’ perseverance in suffering, inspires us with his selfless love and sacrifice, and fills us with enduring hope.
At Baptism, the Spirit flooded our hearts; it was strengthened in Confirmation. In these days of being deprived of the Eucharist, the grace of Baptism and Confirmation is as strong as ever. Live your baptismal grace. Let it guide your prayer and your love of neighbor.
We have received the gift that the Lord promised through the prophet Ezekiel. “O my people, I will put my spirit in you that you may live . . . thus you shall know that I am the Lord. I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.” (Ez. 37:14) We need to bring to people a ‘closeness’ filled with the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.
In these days of “social distancing,” first of all stay close to God. The desert is first of all a special place to be with God. It is a time to lean on God, and be renewed in ‘closeness’ to God. The daily Scriptures are a treasure. Let them feed your heart with hope. But don’t stop there, then find ways to express ‘closeness’ to others.
“The Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.” See how Jesus’ Spirit has inspired the workers in supermarkets to serve others. See how the Holy Spirit empowers healthcare workers to help and even risk their lives. God is using this time to deepen our closeness and compassion. In prayer, ask the Lord for how you might be close and compassionate as your heavenly Father is close and compassionate.