Covid-19: The Sickness unto Death

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By Phillip Hadden, Holy Apostles College

The Holy Ghost has spoken to me through prayer by drawing me to a particular passage from the Gospel of John:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” [1]

Many who are familiar with the story know that Lazarus does, indeed, die from the sickness. So, why would Jesus, the Son of God, make such a statement? Christ knows that we shall all die an earthly life and that through death and resurrection, God will be glorified. Returning to the narrative, Jesus instructs Martha:

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?[2]

So, I ask you, reader, do you believe this? Does the Church and the many baptized into the Body of Christ still believe this?

The Lutheran Church has a magnificent Epiphany hymn that I believe is important to reflect on during our own time of pestilence. The hymn has lends itself to diverse ceremonies, as it is played at both weddings and funerals:  O’ Morning Star, How Fair and Bright, written by Phillipp Nicolai (1556-1608), a Lutheran Pastor. The hymn was written after a plague struck the author’s congregation. Rev. Nicholai wrote these beautiful lyrics while overlooking the cemetery filled with many new graves of his community. What sticks out is its inspiration by God’s grace in a time when earthly death reigned, and yet it gives us words which speak to where our true hope lies, the real Saviour, Jesus Christ.

“Lord, when You look on us in love,
At once there falls from God above
A ray of purest pleasure.
Your Word and Spirit, flesh and blood
Refresh our souls with heavenly food.
You are our dearest treasure!
Let Your mercy
Warm and cheer us!
O draw near us!
For You teach us
God’s own love through You has reached us.
“Almighty Father, in Your Son
You loved us when not yet begun
Was this old earth’s foundation!
Your Son has ransomed us in love
To live in Him here and above;
This is Your great salvation.
Christ the living,
To us giving
Life forever,
Keeps us Yours and fails us never!

Can you imagine writing these words during a plague?

One of the parishes in our diocese has canceled its masses this weekend because of the windchill being extremely cold. It is primarily a residential parish, where many can make the short commute from their house to their church in a five-minute drive. Due to the pandemic, our diocese still has a dispensation on the obligation to attend mass, so I cannot help but wonder if during ordinary times these masses have been canceled? I wonder if this is a sign of the Church’s temperament with its liturgical life in a post-pandemic world.

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[3]

Earlier this month, I was working near a Covid-19 vaccination site. The traffic was chaotic, and I could not get into businesses near the site because people were blocking the driveways. One might ask our Lord in prayer, “Why has this pandemic happened?” Some might ask the Lord, “How have people reacted to such a trial?” “Have (we) turned to God?” “Has the people of God reached out to the masses or retreated from them?” “Have we fully communicated that Christ is Lord and Saviour? (or has the vaccine, turned idol, replaced Christ?)” “Is there a call during this time of trial to repent from our sins, to do penance, and believe the Gospel?” Instead of nourishing our souls by the word of God, prayer, and the Eucharist, do we retreat away from the our consciences on matters of the last four things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, or Hell?

Modern medicine has prolonged life, which is good, but one consequence is that society attempts to ignore death, ironically while promoting a culture of death and ease without burden.  In the ancient Christian communities, this was not the case. It was the opposite; Christians were urged to remember that they will die! Even today, despite the advancements in science and medicine, you will die—memento mori. Death is a constant call to do penance and believe the Good News. God calls us to live lives of holiness on our journeys to His Kingdom. The sustenance for that journey is the Sacred Body and Blessed Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The shuttering of doors of our parishes is a disgrace. The state was ‘allowed’ to close churches and kept them closed for some time. How many will return when they are fully opened? I beg the Holy Ghost for His grace in those times for a massive conversion of faith.

Dei Verbum tells us, God, the author and inspiration of Sacred Scripture by the Holy Spirit:

The books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. [4]

And so, God informs us through St. Paul:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. [5]

So, I leave you with the title of my piece, The Sickness unto Death. Our faith informs us that the Covid-19 Pandemic is not the sickness unto death.  The existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us in his treatise The Sickness unto Death that the sickness is the fear, anxiety, and despair that was allowed to reign over the church’s sacramental life. It kept the faithful from Him Whom is life itself!

Kierkegaard explains:

“Thus, from a Christian point of view, no earthly, physical sickness is the sickness unto death, for death is indeed the end of the sickness, but death is not the end. If there is to be any question of a sickness unto death in the strictest sense, it must be a sickness of which the end is death and death is the end. This is precisely what despair is…the torment of despair is the inability to die.”[6]

Christianity in the West has forgotten this great truth. St. Paul reminds us of our Christian hope–Christ Jesus. By His death and resurrection, He conquers this sickness that has invaded our lives. In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.[7]

Works Cited:

English Standard Version Catholic Edition, Augustine Institute, 2019

Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. XIX, Kierkegaard’s Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980

[1] Jn 11:1–4, ESV-CE

[2] Jn 11:17–26, ESV-CE

[3] English Standard Version Catholic Edition (n.p.: Augustine Institute, 2019), Mt 10:28.

[4] Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

[5] 1 Co 1:18–25, ESV-CE.

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. XIX, Kierkegaard’s Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 17.

[7] Php 1:20–24, ESV-CE.

Life is a gift, but our Catholic faith informs us that our end is the Divine Essence of God; our existence here is a mere pilgrimage in service of our brothers and sisters to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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