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Topics: Spirituality | Opinion

How I grapple with sacrifice during Lent and COVID-19

When I frame staying home as something I'm doing to keep other people safe, it feels more manageable

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On February 2, during a service for Candlemas (the feast that marks the purification of the Virgin Mary after Jesus’ birth), the priest asked us to pray for Kobe Bryants family as well as all of the victims of the coronavirus across the world. The requests were unrelated, of course, but they registered with me in similar ways: both tragic, both distant, both things that I didn’t think would affect me personally.

By the time Ash Wednesday rolled around a little more than three weeks later, things had changed. That was the same day the minister of health had recommended people should begin stockpiling food and medication because, she said, things could change quickly. Still, there hadn’t been any deaths in Canada. We shook hands for the sign of peace and didn’t think twice about letting the priests touch us one after the other to mark a smudgy cross on our foreheads.

But even just a few days later, at the Saturday evening vigil, anxieties were higher, and instead of shaking hands, we just smiled and nodded at each other. I haven’t been to mass since; now it seems like an unimaginable luxury to be so close to so many strangers without any anxiety.

Our modern usage of the word quarantine comes from the 17th century Italian term quarantina, meaning 40 days. That’s how long ships suspected of carrying the plague were forced to wait outside of Venice before being allowed into port. I’m certain part of why they chose that specific period of time is somehow tied to the Bible — there’s Noah’s 40 days and nights of rain, and the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, and, of course, the 40 days of Lent that begin with Ash Wednesday and symbolize the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert. A nice, round, God-endorsed number.

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I like the idea of Lent — sacrificing something and feeling the virtue of abstaining — but in practice, I’m not very good at it. I talk a good game about giving up something really challenging, but in the end I always go for a very middling choice. This year, for example, I chose to stop drinking tea, which wasn’t really that big of a deal because I’m more of a coffee person anyway. Now, like so many other people, I’m giving up having a life outside of the house for at least the next few months.

It might sound glib to compare the global pandemic and social distancing to Lent, but I’ve genuinely found it helpful to think of it in those terms. When I frame staying home as a sacrifice I’m making to keep other people safe, it feels more manageable. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that another trip to the store or a walk downtown won’t hurt me, but thinking about the health of other people makes me less cavalier. Plus, a sacrifice that actually benefits other people —instead of just taking something away from your own life — is all the sweeter.

Anyway, from a religious perspective, living through this period of isolation is probably a lot closer to experience even a fraction of what Jesus felt than nobly walking by David’s Tea without stopping in (back in the days when tea shops were still open, of course). That being said, it would feel pretty nice to sit down with a cup of Cream of Earl Grey right now.

These aren’t things that are being taken away from me, they’re things I’m giving up because I love the world and the people in it.

I miss going to church, which has been a surprising revelation for me. I used to hate it as a kid. I was so disruptive during mass at my Catholic primary school that eventually they just let me sit in the back and read. Now that I’m an adult, I go once in a blue moon. I tend to prefer visiting empty churches on my own time to light a candle and say a quiet prayer. I would usually much rather have a private moment with God and a few flower-bedecked statues than anything else.

These days, though, I crave the experience of sharing a moment of faith in a room full of other people. I want to feel that sense of coming together for a common purpose and celebrating that union through the familiar rituals. I miss it all: the solemn procession down the aisle, the drifting incense, even the congregation fumbling tunelessly though the hymns.

But focussing on the agonizing details of all the things I can’t have right now isn’t useful to my mental health. Instead, I go back to that old idea of sacrifice: that these aren’t things that are being taken away from me, they’re things I’m giving up because I love the world and the people in it. I am doing what I can to keep them safe. We all have a part to play during this crisis, and although some parts might feel small, like sheltering in place instead of saving lives on the front lines, every bit is important.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Anne Thériault is a writer in Toronto.

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  • says:

    Anne, again I'm encouraged and inspired by your reflection on abstaining during Lent. Encouraged because, you are a younger person and solicitous (in your way) about doing something for Lent, like "giving up tea." I've always believed that the children I taught many years ago would hold on to some parts of their faith.

    Inspired because you look at the current pandemic and find in its limitations and social distancing a positive. Like you, I am looking forward to the day when I can join in community with others to celebrate Liturgy together.

    Thanks, Anne!

  • says:

    Lent (fasting) is something Jesus was asked about by the Pharisees. Jesus said .." when the Bridegroom is present, the sons of the bridechamber there is no need to fast, but when He is taken away, they will fast! Well, we Christians who have the Holy Spirit, have the Bridegroom with us, so there is no need to fast!