Why Is This Pandemic Happening? Francis Alvarez, SJ

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’ ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered, ‘he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It is very tempting to jump from the first 3 verses of John 9, our Gospel today, to this conclusion: “The novel coronavirus was sent to us in order that God’s glory may be made manifest.” This is a quite a leap – and a very dangerous one.

First of all, we should not read the Bible literally. If we read the Bible literally, then we should not wear clothes that are a combination of cotton and polyester for as Leviticus 19:19 states, “Do not put on a garment woven with two different kinds of thread.” Read the Bible literally, and if you say you love your family, then you are not a follower of Christ because Jesus said in Luke 14:26, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Are you reading this with both of your eyes? Why haven’t you plucked the right one out yet? At one point or another, we all have looked at something with envy or someone with scorn or lust, and in Matthew 5:29, it is clear: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”

We also cannot just take verses of the Bible out of their context and apply them to every situation without thinking about them prudently. Jesus teaches us about the importance of context when he, in Luke 9:3, exhorts his disciples, “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money,” and when he, later in Luke 22:36, shortly before his arrest, tells them, “Now, one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack….”

An inspiring poem entitled “Lockdown” has been going viral (pun intended). In it, Brother Richard Hendrick, OFM eloquently asks us to open our eyes and see that the sky over Wuhan is clear and blue once more amid the economic slowdown. You can hear the birds there singing again, and their songs echo in the streets of Assisi where villagers serenade their homebound neighbors. 

But the beauty this Capuchin Franciscan poet has found in tragedy is pushed and used to preach that God gave us COVID-19 to make us rediscover how close we can be to our families, that God is forcing us to stop so that we can remember the truly valuable things we have forgotten, that this is God’s way of making us notice him again. This is quite a leap from Brother Hendrick’s poem – and again, a very dangerous one.

Why is this dangerous? It can lead to a distorted image of a God who is so hungry for our attention and who is so desperate to teach us that he has no qualms at all about killing people in order to make us turn to him and take his message seriously. You may feel blessed that after a long time, you are finally having deep conversations with your loved ones, but what about those whose families were decimated, those who cannot work and thus have no pay, and those who will lose their jobs in the coming weeks when businesses file for bankruptcy? Are they just visual aids or teaching tools – unavoidable collateral damage (but at least, we learned our lesson)? Does not God care about them, too?

I have a natural drive to make sense of things, but I should be wary of answers that seem too easy. I should question quick conclusions that lack nuance and critical thinking. I should guard against explanations that may work “for me,” or even for the expanded circle that embraces my loved ones and friends, but largely ignore the nameless and faceless who must be included in the “for us.”

This fast-spreading disease can make us more aware of the works of God, can lead us to reflect and pray, can open us up to the more important things, but I do not think that these are the definitive reasons for this crisis. So why is this pandemic happening? My answer may not sound as nice as others being circulated on social media: I do not know.

We are back to the great mystery of why bad things happen to us who are sincerely trying to be good. So maybe we can return to the story of Job, the man who dared to ask God, “Why is there suffering?” At the end of the Book of Job, God appears, but if you read God’s answer, you will not find a logical explanation. Yet Job is satisfied with God’s speech. Why? Because God has appeared. God’s response to the mystery of suffering is not a cogent reason but his very presence: “I am here. I am with you.”

As many spiritual writers have pointed out, this is still not God’s final answer. An even more powerful presence is revealed at the cross: “I am with you. And I am suffering with you.”

It is not yet Holy Week, but we are bearing the weight of Good Friday already. While we wait for the promised Easter Sunday, what can we do? The novel coronavirus can reveal to us good things even as we endure Good Friday, but it also may not. We turn to our Gospel today: To heal the blind man, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay, and smeared it on the man’s eyes. Jesus making clay is an image that brings us back to the story of creation. God is still creating, and he invites us to join him.

COVID-19 can make the works of God more visible, but our response is also needed. The situation of the man born blind in our Gospel today can make God’s works more manifest, but as is also narrated in our Gospel today, the Pharisees’ reaction to this was hardness of heart. Again, our response, our openness, our acceptance of God’s revelation is still needed. God wants to work with us. As Jesus tells us: “Wehave to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.” 

We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.” This is Good News because we can get strength from the “we” – the “we” tells us Jesus is with us. “Night is coming when no one can work.” We cannot deny the urgency of the matters at hand. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Again, remember that we are not alone.

John 9:1-41, our Good News for today, has long been considered a literary masterpiece. There is a certain poetic balance in it when the man born blind is able to see while the Pharisees, those who can physically see, persist in their spiritual blindness. They remain blind because they are locked in their preconceptions of who the Messiah is and what he should do. We can also get locked in what we think God should be doing now and why all of this is happening. “I do not know” may not be all that comforting, but it can be the first step to seeing.

Today, tell God, “I do not know why this is happening.” Get into a conversation with him. If you are sad or angry, talk to him in sadness and even in anger. Try to voice out your feelings and your thoughts and your preliminary ways of making sense of all of this. Then just be silent with him. Let him maybe get a word in. Let this be another step towards seeing… 

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