How long, O Lord?
The Covid-19 plague weighs heavy upon us. As 2020 passed into 2021, New Year’s celebrations, if they occurred at all, were muted. Many of us had already begun to experience temporal disorientation: one day rolled into another with little differentiation. We were caught unawares by this plague last year; we had come to think it would be long over by 2021; but it drags on. Though an end may be in sight with vaccines, its variants and mutations push the goalposts farther and farther away. We ask with the Psalmist: ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ (13.1).
It has been far too long already. Not only has this pandemic cast into sharp relief the fragility of our lives on earth, but also the futility of looking to ourselves for relief. As the Psalmist also says, ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish’ (146.3–4). The fact is that, on every level, we are doomed without God’s help. To put our trust in human leadership or ingenuity, to think that now is the time for nothing more than scientific research and fearsome endurance, is to miss the mark. This pandemic is a wake-up call. In all its ugliness, this plague starkly reminds us that God alone is our salvation, that he alone is our defence, that we should trust in him at all times, and that we should pour out our hearts before him in prayer (Psalm 62). Not that it wasn’t the case in 2020, or in any time past, but 2021 is an opportunity for earnest prayer and supplication.
‘Prayer’, says St John Damascene, ‘is the ascent of the mind to God or the beseeching of good from him.’ Our Scottish Book of Common Prayer provides a prayer for times of sickness: ‘O Almighty and merciful God, with whom are the issues of life and death: Grant us, we beseech thee, help and deliverance in this time of grievous sickness and mortality, and sanctify to us this affliction, that in our sore distress we may turn our hearts unto thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Note the complexity of this prayer: it acknowledges that life and death are in God’s hand; and, whilst at the same time asking for deliverance and acknowledging distress, the prayer asks God’s help in turning our hearts to him. The prayer, in other words, recognises that hardship is an occasion for grace.
Were we to make this prayer our own and a staple of our devotions for 2021, grace would comfort us through the present (and ongoing) suffering. But there is much more to be had. That self-same grace would abide with us long after the pandemic has passed. It is grace, and only grace, that imparts the wisdom we need now and in future. St Paul reminds us that ‘this world is passing away’ (I Corinthians 7.31) and ‘our true citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3.20). As the world is passing away, so too the pandemic will pass away; likewise, we shall be on this earth but a little while before we pass away. We may or may not be better off in terms of our physical health or material prosperity in the post-pandemic world. And it really doesn’t matter, because we were made for eternity (Ecclesiastes 3.11). Yet, if we are better off in terms of co-operating with God’s grace and valuing divine wisdom, having prayed fervently for deliverance from the scourges of Covid-19 and having put our hope in him, then there will have been a silver lining to the cloud that now overshadows us.
Our Prayer Book also provides a prayer of thanksgiving from sickness: ‘O Lord God, who dost not willingly afflict the children of men, and in thy mercy has assuaged the grievous sickness that hath prevailed amongst us: Accept the praise and thanksgiving which we now offer unto thee for thy great goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ There is intuition in these alpha-and-omega prayers: the first is surely to be answered, which in turn demands the thanksgiving of the second. I’ve bookmarked both in my Prayer Book, anticipating the second every time I say the first.
‘How long, O Lord?’, asks the Psalmist, and so do we. In this New Year, like in no other year, let us lift our minds to God and beseech his grace and deliverance, let us ask good from him, ever mindful that the greatest good to come after deliverance from this plague will not be our earthly well-being or a return to normal, but a renewed turn to God.
Reverend Dr Michael Hull, Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015 and Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.