I felt sick to my stomach. It was the middle of April 2020, and we had been shut down for a few weeks. In the chaos and isolation, I foolheartedly took to read the classic novel Kristen Lavransdatter. It is a sweeping story of faith, sin, redemption, and to my utter shock, the bubonic plague. It felt eerie, foreboding, and hopeless as I read about the devastation of the Black Plague at the verge of the chaos of 2020.
The Bubonic plague, like the Pandemic of 2020-21, could be compared to the plagues of Scripture. But the comparison offends our modern sensibilities about God, suffering, and evil. Nevertheless, in Scripture, plagues are signs and acts of God’s judgment on Egypt, Israel, and the nations (Exodus 7-12, Exodus 32:35). Plagues reveal sin, God’s displeasure with sin, and God’s Judgment on sin. I should say at least two things about the relation between pandemics and biblical plagues.
On the one hand, it is unwise to scrutinize the immediate causes of pandemics in relation to God’s providence, will, and human sin (Deuteronomy 29:29). On the other hand, in light of Scripture, we should allow pandemics to point us to our original rebellion in Adam and our continued expression of that rebellion through disobedience and disbelief. As Christians, we should receive plagues as a part of the divine pedagogy of daily life circumstances that train us, in our own individual lives, in Christ’s way of life (Hebrews 12:4-12). But that does not make them easy, which brings me to my chosen topic: Hope.
Hope is a fickle word; it can mean so many things and sometimes nothing at all. Thomas Aquinas helps us think about hope in a biblical way. Hope is the theological virtue that orients us to desire and enjoy God as our final good and eternal happiness. Grounded in faith in the Triune God, hope trains us to desire God and order all our desires towards him, and leads us to love God and others. But hope is difficult, and Aquinas identifies two ways we belittle and squelch it.
The first is despair, in which we fear that God will not forgive, heal, or provide. The second is presumption, which plays out in two ways: either we presume that God will forgive us, so we keep on sinning. Or we presume that God will not rescue us, so we try to save ourselves. Both alternatives are idolatrous: the former is a false view of God, while the latter is a prideful view of self. Hope avoids despair because it knows that God is good and saves. It avoids presumption because it knows that only God can save and empower us to desire him fully and love him rightly.
In God’s providence, this pandemic is an opportunity to repent of our despair and presumption and realign our minds, desires, and actions by contemplating God and the Gospel.
In our culture, death is the ultimate void of hopelessness. But for Christians, death is where our hope culminates. In the litany for the Ministry to the Dying in the Book of Common Prayer 2019, we pray to the Triune God who is hope and life in himself. As Article 1 of the 39 articles puts it: “There is one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” In the anguish of death, the church points us to the Triune God, who is life in himself (John 5:26). God is infinite life and the source of all life, goodness, and truth. God is the creator, and everything is from him, through him, and for him (Genesis 1:1-2, Romans 11:35). God is wholly perfect and complete without any need, want, or desire. In the face of death, we hope in Life.
Starting with God’s perfect life might seem pastorally insensitive, but the fact that God is perfect life is good news. If God were like us, limited, struggling, imperfect, then our hope would also be limited, struggling, and imperfect. God’s perfect life is the reason we can truly hope in him. This is why the article unfolds God’s perfect life by saying that God is without body (invisible), parts (simple), or passions (impassible). If he were any of these things, God would be like us – he would not be the creator – and therefore, he would not be our final happiness.
The article and litany keep our gaze on the infinite mystery of God by drawing our attention to the persons of the one Godhead: God is the Father, who eternally begets God the Son, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and Son. God as life in himself is not abstract: it is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are eternally life, goodness and beauty. In the face of the horror of death, we do what feels unimaginable, we take our eyes off of our painful situation, and in faith, we turn our eyes to the Triune God who is life and who gives life.
With every invocation of the Triune God, we respond in prayer: “Have mercy on your servant.” We pray the whole economy of salvation in these five words – the gospel: creation, fall, redemption, sanctification, and glory.
Creation: “Have mercy on your servant” God is perfect life, so he is not sequestered or isolated. Because God is perfect life, he freely and benevolently creates the world out of nothing through the Word and Spirit (Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-3). This means, among other things, that God and his creation are not in competition. Rather, God’s perfect life is what secures and sustains humanity in existence and, if we are redeemed in Christ, draws us home in the Holy Spirit. As creatures, we are dependent on God and created to be in communion with God. We cry for mercy because that is what it means to be human: glorify God and enjoy him forever as dependent creatures of the infinite personal God.
Fall: “Have mercy on your servant.” We call out to the Triune God for mercy because of the devastation of sin and death. The fact that we are praying to God over a dying person is not the way it is supposed to be. Humanity rebelled against living in loving dependence on God and chose a life marred by despair, presumption, and death. We cannot hope in God, apart from God, because we are alienated from the God who of life. But God, in His benevolence, does not abandon his creation. God carries them through the long history of salvation.
Redemption: “Have mercy on your servant.” We cry out again for mercy because, the God who is life became incarnate and saved humanity from sin and death, giving us life (John 5:25-27). We can pray “your servant” because Christ has redeemed all those who put their trust in him by taking our sin and death and gives us his life. Apart from Christ, all we can do is despair or attempt to save ourselves – we are hopeless. But Jesus Christ carved out of the path of hope for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Amid death and pandemics, we have true hope because God in Christ has redeemed us so that we have eternal life and happiness in God (John 17:3).
Sanctification: “Have mercy on your servant.” It is on this path of the sojourner and exile (1 Peter 2:11) that we grow in hope by living out our baptism: dying and rising to Christ daily. (Romans 6:4-8, Colossians 3:4-17). We will speak more to the shape of this life below.
Glory: “Have mercy on your servant” As we pray for the dying, we pray in the hope that this person, and all who are in Christ, will enjoy the heavenly kingdom and vision of God for which we were created and redeemed. This hope we foretaste in every communion celebration that one day, we will all behold and praise our Triune God who is Holy, Holy, Holy, (Revelation 4:8) face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Hope is a gift of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. As a gift, we must nourish, cultivate, and guard it, especially in the face of death and pandemics, which tempt us to despair or presumption. Thus, in this mortal life, as we struggle against the flesh, the world, and the devil, we practice the hope that we have received in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
We grow in hope on the road to the promised land, as we “await our blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), eternal life with God. This pilgrim journey is in Jesus Christ, walking in him as our path and end goal. We have glimpsed the God in whom we hope and the path of hope in the gospel. How do we live in hope in the midst of pandemics?
Hope begins with thirst, a deep unquenchable thirst that longs for reality, longs for help, longs for salvation. Hope is a thirst that realizes that only the eternal and divine God who is life will satisfy. When we taste the God who is life, we surrender. The images of this longing in Scripture are clear, thirsty for water, hungry for bread, a treasure we sell everything to get: we give up everything because we discover, we are not our own, but we belong to God. When we find life Himself, what else can we do but give ourselves to him? We begin life in Christ, surrendering to the death of self by trusting in God’s salvation and entering the waters of Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism. Out of those waters, we walk the road out of slavery into the promised land. We learn to taste and see that the Lord is good, and in tasting, we learn to desire, to hope in God. And yet, it is a difficult road. Like Israel in the wilderness, we stumble along, distracted, grumpy, forgetful, and despairing. But God in his mercy gives us the pillars of baptism and manna of communion to grow in us the Hope of Glory (Colossians 1:27).
2. Baptism and Communion
Richard Hooker described baptism as the beginning of the Christian life and the Eucharist as the nourishment of the Christian life. They are the sacraments of Christ that nourish us to hope in God as our true good. In baptism, we are brought into and learn the pattern of the Christian life: daily dying to sin and rising to Christ.
The stride of baptism is how we grow in hope. Baptism habituates us in the reality that God has saved us, so we need not despair of our final happiness. God is at work bringing about our sanctification unto final happiness, so we need not presume on God’s grace or presume that we must make hope a reality for ourselves. Baptism is like the pillars that led the Israelites through the red sea and the wilderness; it is a one-time sacrament and the shape of the Christian life. We practice our baptismal life through the daily office in confession, Scripture, reciting our baptismal creed, and prayer. Baptism, like the gospel, is not something we grow past but deeper into as we walk with Christ.
Communion is the second reality of the gospel that carries us along the path and nourishes hope. Like the manna of the wilderness, communion is the edible gospel that nourishes and strengthens us to desire and journey to our final end. It is a foretaste of the fulfillment of our hope: the one who is the bread of heaven. Communion nourishes our hope in God. It makes us long for the God who is life itself.
How do these practices help us hope in pandemics? They place us into a posture of reception and contemplation by turning our hearts towards the Triune God. Further, they grow in us the love of God and others. Love flows out of hope, and contemplation leads to action. Consider these two disciplines that help us live in hopeful love on our journey home.
Lament is ordered grief directed in faith and hope towards God. It takes despair and turns it into a hopeful prayer. It takes realizations of terrible sins of omission and commission and turns them into a penitent confession. Lament is the language of the sojourner wrestling with the wilderness in their hearts and the hearts of others. It does not sugarcoat pain, but it does not despair in it either. Lament grieves, and grieves with others, and directs grief towards our final hope. Like the author of Lamentation, we lament with anger, fear, sadness, repentance, and in the midst of it all, we say:
3:21-24: But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
4. Memento Mori
In the face of pandemics, we are also tempted by presumption. A remedy to this vice is to Remember our death, which has three uses. First, we remember our death in Christ because we have already died (Galatians 2:20). Our lives are hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Death has already been conquered. Freed from the fear of death, we can love and serve others in the new life we have in Christ. Second, we remember that we will die. Looking towards our death cultivates hope by relativizing everything in life with the clarity of the end. In other words, memento mori cultivates holy apatheia or a desire for God alone and above all. Gregory of Nyssa, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, argues that this apatheia leads to a deep love for others and concern for justice for our neighbor. Third, memento mori cultivates hope by turning our desires to our proper end: the Triune God, which brings us back to where we began this essay.
It took Kristen Lavernsdatter going through the Black Death, for her to finally surrender, hope in God, and love her neighbor. The Pandemic of 2020-21, like the plagues of the Bible, or the 14th century, are moments of great fear, despair, and chaos – they remind us that we are not the gods we easily imagine ourselves to be. In response to this pandemic, let us grow in hope by living in the reality of God and his gospel through the tapestry of life in Christ in His church. Let us turn our eyes to the Lord of Glory, the life of all life and hope in Him, thirst for Him, long for Him. What else can we do? How else should we live? Hope in God, He is our salvation and our God.
- Thanks to Alex Fogelman for directing my attention to Aquinas on this topic. ↑
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Trans. Fr. Laurance Sharpcote, O.P. Ed. John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón (The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Christian Doctrine, Lander Wyoming: 2012), II.II 17 a. 2. ↑
- Aquinas, ST II.II 20 a. 2. ↑
- Aquinas, ST II.II 21 a. 4. ↑
- In these paragraphs I have been meditating on the doctrine of Divine Aseity and the Trinity, which was inspired by and drawn from John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume 1: God and the Works of God (T&T Clark: London, 2016), 13-28. ↑
- Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2001), 2-4. ↑
- See Webster, God without Measure: Volume 1, 92-98. Also, Michael Allen, Sanctification (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017, 87-88, 163-165). ↑
- John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill, Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2006), 3.VII.1. ↑
- Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and other Works. Ed. John Keble, arranged with Hooker’s Blueprint by Michael Russell, Volume II. (Michael Russell, 2004), V.LXVII.1. ↑
- Thanks to Rev. Dr. Jonathan Warren-Pagán for highlighting this practice in a class I took with him. ↑
- Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer. Trans. Hilda C Graff (Paulist: New York, 1954), 63-66. ↑