March 25, 2020
In Times of Great Sickness and Mortality
If the Constitution and Canons of the 1920s Episcopal Church were anything like what they are today, the prayers and rites of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer would have been vetted over 6-9 years. Which means they were largely written in the shadow of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It’s no wonder, then, that the 1928 BCP includes this prayer, In Times of Great Sickness and Mortality:
O Most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, 1928, page 45).
World Wars I and II, with the Great Depression in between, certainly shaped entire generations of Christians, who knew all too well the meaning and experience of sacrifice and peril. Rationing, job loss, and heartbreak, were all too familiar. Church attendance (and birthrates!) rose steeply in the late 1940s and 1950s, as soldiers returned from the war with a profound appreciation for someone who would give his life for another.
But in the decades since, sacrifice has largely been relegated to the military and first responders. They exemplified it on September 11, 2001 and in the seasons that followed. As a nation, we went to war, but life changed little for most of us on the home front. Indeed, for many late 20th/early 21st century Episcopalians, words like “justice” and “peace” have been far more likely to be highlighted in a “wordle” of our Christian teaching and practice than words like “sacrifice” and “giving”.
Now, it seems almost overnight, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Z are all being called to make sacrifices for the good of the whole, many for the first time. We are being called to change our behaviors for the sake of others, for those who are vulnerable. Disruptions imposed by the government and by those in authority are significant for most, life-altering for many. And these disruptions are happening regardless of nation, race, creed, gender identification, or political affiliation. Regardless of the boundaries and borders we are inclined to create.
World views are being shaped anew.
Those of us who grew up scoffing at the behaviors of our elders who grew up during the Great Depression – parents and grandparents who saved scraps of cloth, who didn’t trust the banks, who made us eat all the food on our plates -- are beginning to understand more fully how world events can shape our patterns.
In this season we are invited to learn more about technology, and to reflect theologically on the benefits and limits it offers. There is a lot of that going on. In this season we are also invited to consider the ways the coronavirus pandemic will shape our worldview and that of our spiritual descendants in decades that follow.
Who and what will we trust? Will we be more inclined to hoard out of scarcity or to give out of abundance? How will we make decisions, plan for the future, assume certainty and control, or not? How will we talk about God, about Church, about sacrifice?
How will we pray?
For starters I offer this prayer by the Rev. Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, London:
God of healing and hope; in Jesus you meet us in our places of pain and fear. Look with mercy on those who have contracted the new virus, on any who are vulnerable, and on all who feel in danger. Through this time of global concern, by your Holy Spirit, bring out the best not the worst in us. Make us more aware of our interdependence on each other, and of the strength that comes from being one body in you. Through Christ our wounded healer, Amen.