China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2020/Apr

Holy Week and the coronavirus

Holy Week and Easter are the most solemn feast days in the Roman Christian calendar during which we recall the Passion, death and Resurrection of Our Lord. We may wonder what it tells us about the present, the Covid-19 coronavirus scourge afflicting the world’s peoples. 

During the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil, one of the readings, from Chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus, describes the miraculous passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom in the desert (where they wandered for 40 years) and eventual entrance into the Promised Land. 

The whole experience foreshadows Jesus’ mission which began with a 40-day fast in the desert, and ended with his suffering and death on a cross, his burial and his resurrection on the third day.

During Lent, Christians enter into a period of fasting and abstinence to imitate Jesus’ suffering and death, and catechumens eventually enter into Jesus’ newly resurrected life through Baptism. Old Christians renew their baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil.

It is a spiritual journey of faith. We go from the words of Jesus to the devil tempting Him in the desert: “A person does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” to “Peace be with you” to the apostles on the day of the Resurrection. 

On Resurrection Day in that upper room, Jesus also said two other things to the apostles: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and while breathing on them, said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit then united with their human spirits and they were no longer afraid, but went forth to bear witness to Jesus in the world. 

This act confirmed that human beings are part spirit, and not just material beings. Further, it shows that the human spirit is open to the action of God’s Spirit in their lives.

What does all this mean for us around the world suffering from the pandemic? First of all, it means that God’s Holy Spirit resides in human beings to comfort them and give them strength to fight against the virus. Jesus’ breathing on the apostles and saying to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit” remind us of the creation of man as recounted in Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” 

Genesis 1:28 already records that God created humankind in his image, male and female, he created them. Things develop pretty rapidly after that. Chapter Three records that man fell away from God through the Original Sin and Chapter Four records how humankind fell away from their brethren, when Cain slew his brother, Abel. 

Do such failures take place today? 

A quick perusal of the daily newspapers tells us that they definitely do. Does God get angry at the daily acts of man’s inhumanity to man? A human being cannot speak for God, but one cannot help but wonder if the present Covid-19 pandemic is some kind of punishment from God for peoples’ past sins.

In the present pandemic, commentators often refer back to past epidemics, like SARS in 2003, MERS and the Ebola virus in the 1990s, or even as far back as the Spanish Flu of 1918. Medical researchers look for common denominators which might help us deal with the present virus. 

Believers from a Judeo-Christian background might go back even further to around 2,500BC to the Passover mentioned above. Chapters 7 to 10 in the book of Exodus, records that 10 plagues took place in Egypt before the pharaoh would let the Israelites leave. These were: water turning to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the first-born progeny of both man and beast. 

After each one, Moses pleaded with the pharaoh: “Let my people go.” After the first nine plagues, the pharaoh refused to listen. It was only after the 10th plague that pharaoh finally let the Israelites go.

How do the Egyptian plagues of 2,500BC apply to the present pandemic? What lessons can be learned? 

According to the South China Morning Post, as of April 15, 1,986,936 people had contracted the Covid-19 coronavirus worldwide, 125,953 had died, while 475,973 had recovered.

During Lent and Easter, Christians in Western Europe (Italy, Spain, France and Germany) and the United States, where Covid-19 has ravaged many, should ask themselves: Am I doing enough to take care of the poor and those in need within the borders of our country? After all, on one of the weekdays during Lent, we read the gospel of Jesus’ Second Coming at the end of the world (Matthew 25: 31-46), when he will judge all the peoples of the world. 

He will separate the people into sheep and goats. He will place the sheep on his right side and the goats on his left. Then he will say to those on his right: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger, and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, and in prison and you visited me.” 

Then the Lord’s hearers will ask him: “Lord, when did we do all those charitable things for you?” And Jesus will answer: “Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” 

Then Jesus will assign those on his left to the fires of hell because they did not do the charitable acts spelled out to those on his right. Those rejected will likewise ask: when did we not do those things for you, and Jesus will reply: “As long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me.”

So, the standard of behaviour judged worthy for entrance into the kingdom of heaven is the treatment of our brothers and sisters in need. 

Here we should mention the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff in China, who gave their lives treating those afflicted with the Covid-19 coronavirus. They are rightfully praised for sacrificing their lives for others. I am sure they have heard the words of Our Lord: “Come, you blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom … for as long as you did it for the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

What about non-Christian countries then? The people there may say: we are atheists, so there is no need to pay attention to the words of the Bible cited above. Covid-19 is alleged to have started in a wet market in Wuhan, China. So the authorities may just decide to close down the wild animal part of the market and not worry about whether we are “angering the gods” because they don’t exist. But you would think that the authorities would want to play it safe and cover all the bases. 

Suppose there is a God. It is difficult, using natural reason alone, to prove that God exists; it is just as difficult to prove the contrary. 

It is said that about 50 per cent of scientists believe God exists while the other 50 per cent don’t. Maybe more people among the general public are agnostic; they just do not know whether God exists or not. 

As we posit in the opening paragraph, human beings are part spiritual. They are not just material beings. They have an unconscious longing for spiritual satisfaction, for contact and communication with their creator. 

So, authorities in a self-professed atheist country might ask themselves how they are treating the religious believers within their borders. Do they give them true freedom of religion, or do they strive to control them? Are they even persecuting them? 

Observers wonder, for example, why gather one million Uyghurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang Province for supposed study sessions? Is it to change doctrines in their Muslim religion? 

I recall Premier Zhou Enlai saying that you cannot change a person’s religion by administrative means. 

Such methods do not seem to help the country’s economic development. It only seems to create bad press for China around the world. Can’t the authorities hear the voice of the Uyghur people, shouting like Moses, “Let my people go”?

What about the case of Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu? He was sentenced to nine years in prison at the end of December 2019 for subversion. Subversion? Was he out to overthrow the government? Is that what he really wanted to do? To outsiders, the only thing he wanted to do was to run his Church without government interference. 

What about the destruction of crosses on Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in Zhejiang and other provinces? Or even the tearing down of whole churches? And what about the taking down of a picture of the Blessed Mother from the interior wall of a church in Henan Province and replacing it with a picture of President Xi? And the sinicisation of Christian theology just seems to be an attempt by communist ideology to swallow up the faith.  

Can the authorities not hear the cry of the Christians: “Let my people go”? 

It seems to me that real religious freedom, instead of oppression, would be a better way for governments to win the support of religious believers within their borders.