One of the mercies of God is that the pandemic took off during Lent. The first reading at Mass on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, gives us a clue about how to pray. The reading is from the prophet Joel, who prophesied at a time when Judah was experiencing a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that had destroyed all the crops and was threatening to bring mass starvation (not unlike this year’s devastating locust plague in East Africa).
In the face of this calamity, God calls out to his people:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he. ....
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
Proclaim a fast;
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation. ...
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
The prophet then succinctly records God’s merciful response:
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people (2:12-18).
The Lord restored an abundant food supply, but he did even more than that: He promised an extraordinary outpouring of his Holy Spirit, not only on his own people but on the whole world, bringing salvation and the knowledge of God (Joel 2:28-32).
So today, we are summoned to pray, fast and repent, for our own sake and the sake of the world. The prayer of Daniel during another national calamity provides a great model of such humble, contrite intercessory prayer (Daniel 9).
Here are a few specific ways Catholics might examine our consciences, especially during this Holy Week as we enter into the mystery of Christ’s passion.
We’ve been robbed of the ability to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Have we sometimes taken the Eucharist for granted? Have we been lax and lukewarm in our practice of the faith, squeezing in Mass (if at all) around all our other priorities, instead of making the Lord the first priority of our lives?
Just as a time of abstinence for a married couple can deepen their love by spurring them to express their affection in other ways, so this involuntary Eucharistic fast can be an opportunity to renew our intimacy with the Lord, especially through prayer and the reading of Scripture, so that, when we are finally able to receive Holy Communion again, we may partake with greater fervor than ever before.
Half the human race is under some form of lockdown, as if suddenly consigned to an involuntary retreat. Have we sometimes failed to honor the Lord by keeping the Lord’s Day? Have we treated Sundays just like any other day, as a time to go shopping, get work done and pursue our own agenda, instead of taking time to deepen our relationship with Jesus and relax with family and friends? In the Old Testament, God decreed that Judah would go into exile for a time corresponding to all the sabbaths they had broken, “until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths” (2 Chronicles 36:21). So now, perhaps our frenetic society is retrieving its lost sabbaths.
Millions of people are being constrained to spend more time in close quarters with family members than ever before. Have we sometimes taken for granted our spouse, children, siblings or parents? Have we placed them far down on our list of priorities? Have we sometimes dealt with our own sense of helplessness, fear or frustration by taking it out on them?
This week is an opportune time to ask forgiveness not only of God, but also of those closest to us, and to express our love for them. Parents especially can model this for their children.
Sports events and other forms of entertainment have ground to a halt. Have we made an idol of sports or entertainment?
The economy is tanking. Have we made an idol of money and possessions? Have we been trying to worship both God and mammon?
If Christians humble themselves before the Lord in prayer, fasting and repentance, then, and only then, will we be able to credibly call the whole world to repentance and faith in Christ. In this time of crisis, as people come face-to-face with human limitations and the reality of death, we may be given an unprecedented opportunity to bear witness to Christ.
As in the time of Joel, God’s plan is for more than simply an end to the calamity: He desires to bring all nations to the saving knowledge of his Son, who is victorious over sin, sickness, Satan and death.