MLA: Thanks to those of you who wrote “endorsements.” If you haven’t, and would like to, do send me one.
This, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, is some kind of invocation:
O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wildernes for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembring thy mercy didst save the rest: have pitie upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sicknes and mortality, that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angell to cease from punishing: so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sicknes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s hard to imagine a more politically incorrect prayer in the midst of our current pandemic. We are loath to speak of judgment as a society to begin with, but associations between natural phenomena and divine wrath are a special kind of bad. And for good reason: they have often been employed to single out a specific group of wrongdoers, which (surprise!) rarely overlaps with the group that names the phenomenon as ‘divine judgment.’ We are right to be wary of making the leap from a pestilence to divine action. Sometimes a plague is just a plague.
Today is Good Friday, though, the most somber of days in the church calendar—and it is hard for me to not think about judgment. Ash Wednesday is more penitential, to be sure: we acknowledge our mortality, and renounce our sins. But only on Good Friday do we see the outcome of our transgressions in their fullness: only on Good Friday are we able to say with the confession from the same Prayer Book that the burden of our sins is intolerable. We cannot bear to look at their cost, nor can we dare look away. The enactment of God’s judgment in the Passion of the Christ is worse than the pestilence and the plague: the Son of God dies, and dies for us. The severity of God’s judgment is known only through the sharpness of His mercy. It is not the anger of His wrath that will destroy us should we look upon Him, but the depths of His goodness.
Or so I think upon Good Friday. I have long thought that our real spiritual needs are precisely the inverse of those at work in the world around us. Our unwillingness to speak of judgment is simply one long, sophisticated effort to keep ourselves from the one thing we really need. As there is a grief that leads to death, so there is one that leads to repentance: and this grief arises from encountering the true scope of our complicity in injustice, death, and sin. True contrition must be cosmological: it must see not only the wrongs that one has done, but also those one has left undone. It is constituted by an awareness of the defilement not only of the heart, but of the whole world.
For not even nature has been left untouched by sin. As my friend and mentor John Mark Reynolds once taught me, the grain of sand has long corroded the gears of the universe, enabling otherwise ordinary phenomena to wreak havoc upon the order of God’s good creation. Were it not so, we might be able to infer from the plague that God hath done it, especially and directly, as payment for our sins. He has not, at least that we can tell.
Yet to encounter our sin in such a light means also that penitence—yes, I have said it—before the plague is warranted. Like the Roman Empire with its courts and its judgments and its wars, a virus can also be an instrument of death. As a form of judgment, it sorts out the light from the dark: in putting us to the test, it discloses to us the inner workings of our hearts. The virus reminds us that we are a people of unclean lips, and we live within a world that has been similarly soiled by the principalities’ and powers’ hostility to our Lord.
The pandemic, though, is only the image: this day gives us the substance, for in celebrating the Passion of Jesus Christ we see that the scope of our sin extends beyond the cosmos. If we wish to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, we must learn to sing the songs of contrition and lament. God may or may not spare us from the plague; but He has spared us, by His grace, from a fate worse than death. Such is the terrible kindness that permits us to call Him, and this Friday, Good.