It has been a strange week. The entire work week was dominated by talk of the coronavirus and COVID-19. My coworkers seemed to be solidly divided into two camps: those who thought the whole thing was no big deal, just media induced hysteria over something no different than the common cold and those who were convinced that in a month’s time, there would be eight people in need for every existing hospital bed.
Several times throughout the week, Bishop sent updated guidelines and regulations for Mass and other gatherings at the church. There was nothing radical in these: handwashing, a suspension for all but the celebrating priest and any concelebrating priests from receiving Holy Communion from the chalice, refraining from holding hands or shaking hands during the Sign of Peace. Things like that. But the speed and frequency with which they came told me the diocese views this as a rapidly evolving situation, and that they are doing a good job of staying on top of it.
On Thursday, the company I work for made a sudden, end-of-day announcement that the building was closed. None but an extremely small skeleton crew would be on site. Everyone else would be expected to continue to work from home.
But, for me, the strangest thing of all has been witnessing, albeit from a safe distance, the average American’s citizen’s relationship with toilet paper. Now, to be fair, I haven’t actually been in a store in months. It’s just too difficult to take a wheelchair into a store to go grocery shopping and I can’t walk far enough to make it around the supermarket. But, if I can believe what people are saying, then panic buying has resulted in a shortage of toilet paper and empty shelves in the stores. Turns out, you can learn a lot about a person from their relationship with toilet paper.
All this left me wondering: has there been any panic buying of Bibles? As I thought about what I would say today, I wondered if I would be saying it to a larger-than-usual congregation, thanks to people who might otherwise not attend church being afraid now and deciding it might be a good time to get right with God; a smaller-than-usual congregations, because people were staying home afraid they might become sick; or the regular people that I see week after week here at Our Lady of Lourdes.
And, honestly, what I fully expected was to see the regular people who I see every week, minus possibly a few who’s health makes staying home a prudent decision. Why? Because that is the nature of faith.
Faith is not rooted in fear. To be sure, there was an uptick in church attendance following 9/11 from those who sought comfort in time of crisis. But that uptick was brief, because a faith motivated by fear of death is not a faith that will endure; death waits for all of us. It could be today; it could be eighty years from now. But life is short, and death is certain. You don’t need faith to know that and having faith will not keep it from being true.
Faith is a joy when times are good, and a comfort when times are bad. But true faith comes not from fear… it comes from hope, and the sure and certain belief that Christ died so that we may inherit life eternal. In today’s second reading, St. Paul writes, “And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Beautiful. The love of God fills our hearts through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the rewards of faith, and I don’t mean anything as mercenary as God loves us because we have faith. God loves everyone; God’s love and mercy is not conditioned on anything in us. God loves the sinner and the saint.
But because we have faith, and because through that faith we have belief, we are able to respond to God in a special way. We can experience the love God has for us now, in this life – in this moment – because our souls are ready for it. Faith brings us to the holy altar, and from it the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with love. Our love and longing for God and God’s love and longing for us meet in a holy union that has the power to change us and to change our lives, every day… in every situation… in everything we do.
And yet, even so, it is merely a foreshadowing of what is to come. We see the reward of faith now in our loving spiritual union with our creator. We know that union will be made perfect in our life that is to come.
That perfect union is not the end; it is not simply a prize for a life well lived. It’s not something that is earned in heaven for good behavior here on earth. It is a part of our journey – our entire journey – that begins and the moment of our conception and continues throughout our life. Everyone is born; everyone lives; everyone dies and is judged. We all have that in common. After judgement, our journey doesn’t end. It continues, and for those judged worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, it continues as an union of love throughout eternity with God.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear that many of the Samaritans came to believe because of the testimony of the woman at the well. Yet many more came to believe because of the words of Christ. “We no longer believe because of your word,” Scripture tells us; “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
Faith is not born of fear. It comes through an encounter with Christ, and a relationship with God who loves us. This is why – even when times are uncertain – we can say with confidence: Pray, hope, and do not be afraid.
And if we’re honest, times are always uncertain. God gives us the intelligence and the wisdom – and, importantly, the freedom – to act with prudence and to live not in fear, but in faith.
Are we allowed to be worried about the uncertainties? Of course. Not to be worried would be foolish. Are we allowed to take steps to mitigate possible bad outcome? Of course! Not to do so would be imprudent. To be foolish and imprudent is to act against the will of God. And yet, no matter how uncertain things may be, we know that our faith will endure, because it is a faith born from love, and true love never dies.
So pray, hope, but never let fear destroy your Christian joy. Let God’s love fill your heart and know that at the hour of your death you will see the reward of your hope and the fulfillment of your prayers. That is where faith leads us. It doesn’t carry us away from fear; it carries us toward God. And on that path, we need never fear what the world might do to us.