As the recent addition to our lexicon, COVID-19, rolls off the tongues, and streams off the texts of so many throughout the world these last few weeks, I am personally reminded of the thing which seems to be the source of so much panic and pandemonium: death. But, unlike the invisible and worrisome COVID-19, death is nothing new, and, frankly, nothing that any of us is going to escape, at least not in the mortal sense. So, why the mayhem?
Financial markets are thrown into turmoil, stocks sell off at record rates, jobs are lost, stores are shuttered, bank accounts emptied, life savings vanish into thin air, schools are closed, graduations cancelled, handshakes and hugs are anathematized, gathering in even small crowds is dispersed by police, church attendance is barred: Where are we heading?
I submit we are heading nowhere new. The issue is a matter of an understanding our definition of what death is, and what is accomplished by it, and if it is even something to be feared. If one is of the opinion that all we are is this mortal coil, and that once it is shed we are lost to all but memory, that is understandably depressing. If, however, one knows that there is more to this existence, the calculus changes.
We Christians know that we are composite beings, flesh and spirit. Once the spirit is created, since it lacks matter, it cannot be destroyed. No, we all end up somewhere, it is only a matter of where, and whether or not we have prepared ourselves to get there.
Witness, the martyrs of Christendom. Throughout Christian history there are nearly innumerable examples of men and women willingly going to their deaths. In earliest times, the lions and beasts of the coliseum did their work. The Roman centurions, governors, and emperors did theirs, too. Up to our present age, the hands of men still shed the blood of Christian martyrs into the soil of the earth. But there remains a consistent theme; these good Christians, while not asking for death, did not run from it.
During times of plague and pestilence gone by, good Christian martyrs were again to be found, toiling to tend to the sick and dying, despite the threat all around them. Woven through these events are the stories of several saints raised to the altar a s a result of their willingness to go, unafraid for their own flesh, into the Coliseum of their time and face the invisible beasts of bacteria and viruses. Even today, many are willing, and many have.
But, what do we see as the worldly response? Panic, fear, withdrawal, and near paralysis of an entire system of society. Local, state and national governments are restricting their citizens on an un-precedented scale. And as I mentioned above, the fallout of these restrictions is having a real impact on life, so much so that in many places people are beginning to lash out at each other, and their lawmakers. In my own family, tensions and divisions have become manifest and apparent. Typical battle lines are being drawn by politicians and pundits, and honestly, it has become an exhausting panoply of noise. In some cases, these impacts are worse than the illness we are all hoping so earnestly to avoid. And we hope to avoid it, because we hope to avoid death – even the faint threat thereof.
Alas, none of us will avoid a physical death. The headline, buried in this later paragraph, is that all 8 billion people living at this minute, are going to die. And there is the difference. We can either choose to avoid death, by avoiding life, or we can get on with living knowing that dying is something our bodies all will do at some point.
Do not take this to mean that I suggest recklessness! While martyrdom is a virtue, suicide is not, nor is foolishly behaving in a dangerous way to pass an illness to a friend, family member or colleague. So, when the means to avoid getting sick or passing a disease are practical and practicable, please do so. While I am a medical professional, I do not write this in the capacity of an infectious disease expert. So, listen to the experts for that type of advice.
However, we Christians should not fear death. While none of us should want to die, everyone one of us must be ready to die. For your body, eat well, get some exercise, wash your hands, stay at home if you’re sick, listen to the advice of professionals and apply it when and where you should, ask for medical help if you need it, and be a good neighbor. For your spirit, say your prayers, find a way to confess your sins and do penance, give yourself fully back to Jesus. Only the Father knows the time and manner of our passing. Let that be enough, and do our part to be ready.