Covid-19 during Lent: The challenge of joining Jesus in the desert
“If you want to flee from God, flee to him instead”—St. Augustine
“And Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan. And he was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, and he was tested by the devil” (Lk 4:1)
For his disciples yesterday and today, Jesus spending forty days of fasting in the desert could be offered as an anticipation and model of social distancing. Though he did not have to contend with a disease there, like we do with COVID-19, he did confront a much more formidable enemy—the Evil One himself. No doubt, COVID-19 is an evil; additionally, it is also testing you and me, as well as the whole of humanity today, as Jesus was tested in the desert. When Jesus was tested, we were tested with him, having the same human nature that Jesus took through his incarnation. Intentionally his triumph is also ours. But how is this possible if we do not also embark, with him, on a journey into the desert? That is the whole point of the Quadgesima or Quaresma, the forty-day spiritual retreat of Lent.
To my mind, social distancing could also be seen as an invitation for us to more deeply join Jesus who socially distanced himself in the desert. Social distancing itself does not mean hating or disliking the company of fellow humans. In today’s context social distancing could be another form or act of prudence and charity. If I were infected with COVID-19 or any transmissible virus, my social distancing/self-isolation/self-quarantine clearly is a tool to save other members of my family or community from the illness I suffer. If I am not infected, my social distancing helps me avoid putting my own health and the health of my family and community at risk.
Like any other human act, it is really the purpose in the light of which we do social distancing that makes it morally right, and hence a valid option to embrace, or morally wrong, and hence an action that must be avoided. Certainly Jesus withdrew himself from the crowds when he went to the desert, not out of some existential Sartre-like conviction that “hell is other people”. On the contrary, Jesus, by socially distancing himself, was—to borrow St. Augustine’s language—“fleeing to God”, thus giving witness in our eyes to the love of God above all things and with one’s whole being (Df 6:5). On the other hand, his social distancing in the desert was not a sociopathic act but, in the tradition of Moses and Elijah who also fasted for forty days (Exodus 34:27-28; 1Kg 19:8), was a preparation for his public ministry. In a word, Jesus distanced himself from society so he could better serve society by becoming a more effective proclaimer of God’s Kingdom. Social distancing was also his act of loving his neighbor as himself (Lev 19:18).
Jesus in the desert is, as previously said, Jesus who socially distanced himself in oder to be intimate with his Father, being already filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:1). In like manner, social distancing affords us an opportunity to spend more time for prayer and silence, to cultivate our relationship with the God of our salvation. We might not actually be able to make deserts of our homes or enclaves but we can certainly make them approximate the desert experience by agreeing to maintain hours of family prayer and quiet, that is, free from the ever-present television, cellphone and the muted chatter of social media. I know this could be extremely difficult, given the unhealthy habits we have acquired in this day and age. But this is not impossible. I know of families that, by mutual consent, maintain times of prayer and silence at home. The key is the family coming to its senses and agreeing to serve their need to seek spiritual, and not simply physical-psychological health and sanity.
It is interesting that, in the context of our calamitous times (not to say calamity-prone country), prayer may have brought to Filipinos some of its important facets. For instance, although the “Oratio Imperata” tradition, in recent years encouraged by the CBCP, has been criticized for at times inordinately dictating on God—as though we know better than he on how to go about responding to human emergencies—it has also created a mindset: That we cannot truly pray as Christians and be self-absorbed at the same time. COVID-19, like previous plagues and pandemics, is a common threat not only to our individual families and communities but also to all nations on earth. We are all potential victims of the dreaded disease or potential beneficiaries of its possible cure and eventual subjugation. Filipinos have now, by habit, learned to pray for their deliverance while also begging the same grace for other families, communities and even other nations on earth. Solidarity in prayer has, for Filipinos, also made prayer an instrument of solidarity with non-Filipinos.
Jesus fasting in the desert has also something to say about COVID-19. For one, it challenges us to also fast from unhealthy ways of eating and drinking, of entertaining ourselves. Considering the way the virus might have started, Jesus refraining from food and drink tells us not to be slaves to our body’s needs or to our worldly sources of entertainment. Some experts of the Scriptures say that Jesus’ fasting does not necessarily mean that he completely avoided food and drink, for even Elijah also ate sparse amounts of food and drink (1 Kg 19:18) but that he ate and drank sparingly, simply relying on sparse food and drink available to him where he was. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are, however, silent on how Jesus practiced fasting. Still, it should be clear to us that even the Master trained his body to be subject to the Spirit. While Jesus’ fasting clearly is a push for us to avoid too much preoccupation with the needs of our bodies and the lures of our material world, COVID-19 makes us even more aware of how certain facets of this material world present danger rather than hope, death rather than life. COVID-19, in a word, could be seen as an oblique call from Mother Nature—where God, too, speaks—that mankind be less obsessed with what occupies the flesh and become more attuned to the things of the spirit. Make that Spirit, too and especially.
Jesus’ fasting in the desert, away from the “madding crowd” (with apologies to Thomas Hardy and Thomas Gray) that would have either lauded or scorned him makes it plain to us that the Master was himself the first to practice his own teaching: “Be careful therefore not to do your acts of righteousness before men in order to be seen by them. Otherwise, expect no recompense from your Father in heaven” (Mt 6:1). Social distancing occasioned by the corona virus is therefore an opportunity to not be ruled by how many “likes” or “dislikes”, by how much we are approved or disapproved of by people as we journey through life. The Master praying and fasting, with no known human companion, tells us that only God’s approval counts in the desert.
And lest we be discouraged by our inability to see, much less visit, a physical desert, let us take heart. The desert is also any environment of life where in resounding silence we hear, with St. Teresa of Jesus, the words: “‘Nothing disturbs you, nothing frightens you, everything passes. God does not move, patience reaches everything, he who has God lacks nothing, only God suffices.”
COVID-19 is theorized, by some, to have started in a food market. it should not be a surprise if its end could be ushered in by someone, not necessarily in a lab or hospital, but previously in a place of prayer or worship.
Or by many “someones” joining the Master, a little more deeply, in the desert.