Saturday, March 14, 2020

Lent 2020: But the Media Told Me to Panic!

It's ironic that the Gospel reading in the Catholic church today is that of the Prodigal Son. For those unfamiliar, it's a story about a wayward child reconciling with his father. Jesus' intent was to tell us that no matter how far we may stray, or how much we may offend God, we will always be welcomed back into his embrace if we return to him with a humble and contrite heart.

I say it's ironic because if Jesus were alive today, he'd have to change the story. The father in the parable would see his son at a distance, and instead of running out to greet him, the father would be wearing a surgical mask and holding out his arms to stop his son from embracing him. "Son, I'm glad you're back," he would say, "but social distancing is important."

This is the situation we find ourselves in as church after church shuts down in fear, and those that remain open are releasing strict guidelines regarding contact with hands, icons, and other people in general. Even the Byzantine Catholics in our neck of the woods have now banned antidoron, the blessed bread that Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches offer to all worshipers. And the arch-conservative SSPX has ordered all holy water fonts drained.

As I've said before, it's always good to practice good hygiene and take commonsense precautions during cold and flu season. But we're not facing down the black plague here. We're facing a virus that the overwhelming majority of people will recover from. The reaction is out of all reasonable proportion to the danger the virus causes. Fear, by far, is the much larger virus at this point -- fanned by the media and accepted uncritically by what seems like the majority of the human race.

The hysteria, sadly, has finally hit our region, as we found when we were out on a routine grocery run yesterday. The supermarket was being picked bare as people were panic-shopping, their carts overflowing with multiple loaves of bread, pallets of bottled water, huge jars of sauces and juices, boxes and boxes of cereals and pastas, and loads of toilet paper. There wasn't a single pack of TP to be found -- the entire aisle was empty.

It feels like we're subjects in a social experiment right now, and the way most people are reacting is downright terrifying. It makes you wonder how they'd react if we faced an actual crisis.

What are you going to do with 50 rolls of TP, anyway? You can't eat it. And it's not like you're going to be holed up in your house with no escape for the rest of the year -- unless the feds declare martial law, of course. And granted, that is possible, considering the entire state of Washington is now effectively under house arrest. But still, why toilet paper, of all things? I've heard reports of people driving from Spokane, an hour an a half away, to raid our stores for toilet paper. What is the psychology behind this? I am completely baffled. You think you're living in Mad Max world, and your primary concern is toilet paper?

Anyway, it was heartening to see, following the draconian lockdowns on churches in a time when people need the churches to minister to them and remain a beacon of hope, that the Diocese of Rome has at least partially reversed its decision to lock down all its churches. It seems they're becoming aware of the optics of what they've done.

Because when places like the Diocese of Seattle shut down all their churches, they are sending a loud and clear message that they are giving in to the same fear that's gripping our society. Right now our church doesn't look the Christ that healed the lepers, or the martyrs who died for their faith. It isn't the church that calls people in for prayer during times of calamity. Instead, it looks like the disciples who all ran and hid after Jesus was arrested. They chose fear and self-preservation over standing in solidarity with their Lord.

What can a church possibly offer the people in the way of hope and courage and faith when it cowers in the shadows like the disciples who abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour?

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