When Latin was in the process of evolving into modern Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, the word “quarantine” was born in Venice. The root of the word means “forty.” (You can probably see many other possible derivatives that have to do with the number four or forty, like quad or quarter, or maybe I’m just sheltering in place with a Latin teacher). In seafaring Venice, a quarantine referred to a forty day period of separation for sailors who had ventured to plague-ridden ports. The choice of forty days for such things, though, has a much longer pedigree.
Forty days, forty years—Biblically these are times of testing and cleansing, be it the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or Jesus fasting in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It’s one of the reasons Lent is forty days (technically the Sundays don’t count) and there are forty days from Easter to Ascension, just like in the New Testament.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been using the idea of forty years as a Biblical generation in our Rededicated campaign that started last year. We’ve been at our current site forty years (forty-one years now) and want to do whatever it takes to help people in Munster in A.D. 2059 inherit from us all the gifts we inherited from the previous generation. In the midst of that campaign, we’ve come upon a genuine time of testing. I don’t know if it will be literally forty days or not, but the purpose can remain the same.
When we think of a time of testing, of some message or opportunity from God that actually shows up on our calendars, questions naturally arise. How do you know God intends this time for this or that purpose? What is the meaning of this pandemic? Is it God’s wrath? A call to repentance? If so, to whom? How do we know what global events really mean?
Over the weekend, I read an article by a well-known intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, which made the following claim: "The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science." Is that true? How can science prove or disprove meaning? It can’t, not even theoretically. Meaning is outside the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science can describe viruses and explain how they spread and what they do to us. Science can, with limited success, attempt to predict how a pandemic will develop. But science cannot tell us what such a pandemic means or doesn’t mean, and anyone who thinks science can do that doesn’t understand the parameters within which scientific investigation works. You may as well ask a chemist to examine the molecular structure of the water in the font and tell us what Baptism means.
By the same token, apart from a clear Word of Scripture (or some direct revelation from God, which no Christian should expect, since we’ve been promised that Scripture is sufficient for us) pastors cannot declare with any degree of certainty what exactly this pandemic means, either. We cannot go beyond what God has revealed. We can only go by what we know, and we don’t know why exactly God allows this pandemic to happen. Preachers (usually on tv) who proclaim that they know why this is happening are similarly going way beyond the parameters of their office, which is to preach and teach the Word of God, not put God’s signature on their own opinions.
But just because we don’t know for sure where exactly God is going with this pandemic doesn’t mean we cannot take away edifying lessons from it. We could understand it as a forty day call to repentance, and we would not be wrong. We couldn’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” about that interpretation. We couldn’t use it to call someone else to repentance. But we can be called to repentance ourselves. As long as we don’t bind anyone else to our own interpretations of events, we are free to interpret them for ourselves in any way that is in keeping with what we know of our God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, how has this whole, surreal experience of the nation shutting down changed you? How will you let it change you? What will be your new focus, your new priorities when we come out of this? What will you seek to cease doing, and to what will you rededicate yourself? If you have edifying answers to those questions, then it is true to say for you that this time is a time of testing and cleansing. It certainly can be. Hopefully it will be. If so, it has meaning. No experiment or cocksure declaration about the powers of science can take that away from you.
Many people are trying to predict what this pandemic will mean for the future of the Church. It is all guesswork, because it is God’s future and God’s Church, and He hasn’t told us. Anything He allows to happen invites somehow closer to Christ and His bride the Church. So whatever else may happen out in the world, in your life I pray that this “quarantine” of a sort may clarify your resolve, strengthen your faith, and render you a more committed Christian than you were at the beginning of the year. After all, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana