Finding God in a pandemic

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

John 20:24-29

John 20:24-29 is part of the Gospel reading in Episcopal Eucharistic services on the Second Sunday of Easter. The COVID-19 pandemic can cast a fresh light on Thomas’ doubt. Thomas did not live during a pandemic. He did live during the ruthless Roman occupation of Palestine. Like the COVID-19 virus that sometimes spreads through traceable contracts and other times seems almost random, the Romans usually targeted identified troublemakers/criminals but occasionally struck out against people apparently selected at random. Roman soldiers, like a virus in a pandemic’s early stages, acted with impunity. Often, Roman army commanders expected soldiers to choose a local person to house and feed the soldier(s) at no cost to the soldier(s). Capital punishment – often by crucifixion – was widespread.

As during this pandemic when some Christians (and others) wonder why God would allow the coronavirus to ravage communities and destroy lives, the Jews sought in vain to understand why God allowed the unjust, Roman occupation of the Promised Land.

Thomas had risked his life to follow Jesus. Now Jesus was dead. The idea of a dead person rising from the grave was nonsensical, or worse. The thought of Thomas accepting the word of the other disciples that they had seen Jesus is comparable to our believing that a group of non-medical, non-scientific individuals had discovered a COVID-19 cure. Before taking the cure, I, for one, would want to see the evidence.

Unlike John’s account of what happened with Thomas, we cannot literally touch the risen Jesus. Instead, doubt, confusion and grief – especially in the enforced isolation of a lockdown – can direct our thoughts and feelings inward. There, the risen One can touch us. Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio writes:

[Francis’] life indicates to us that if we persevere in prayer we will find God in the center of our lives and the bitter will become sweet [as when Francis kissed the leper]; however, if we stay on the plain of mediocrity then the bitter may remain bitter. To trust in the power of God’s grace through darkness, isolation, bitterness, and rejection is to be on the way to becoming prayer because it is the way to freedom in God. For prayer, that deep relationship of God breathing in us, requires change and conversion. And where there is change, there is the letting go of the old and the giving birth to the new. To pray is to be open to the new, to the future in God. The way to life passes through change and ultimately the change from death to life. Prayer is the way to life because in prayer we are invited to change and to grow in love.[1]

Asking why God allowed a global pandemic in 2021 is no more answerable than is the question of why God allowed Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews for several centuries two thousand years ago. Asking whether God is with us and whether we, journeying inward, can experience God's wise, loving and life-giving presence are questions we can answer with a resounding YES! That answer is the meaning of Easter and why our unceasing cry is Alleluia, Alleluia.

[1] Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer (Franciscan Media: 2004), 28.


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