Alive and well in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic: The Body of Christ

The Body of Christ can be used to symbolize many different things or aspects of our lives. In the Roman Catholic tradition of the Christian faith (as well as in other traditions of Christianity), the Body of Christ is usually seen as the Eucharist. During this pandemic people of all faiths are prevented from coming together in worship in order to protect one another from spreading the virus. For Catholics this means not being able to receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist physically in the usual way.

Instead, we have had to rely on what has been termed “spiritual communion” through television and online broadcasts of the Mass. In spite of this there seems to be a strong response to the televised and online Masses and the feedback indicates that the faithful are taking full advantage of the opportunities for spiritual communion.

There are other ways of referring to or visualizing the Body of Christ, however, and to which, ironically perhaps, we have been brought into even stronger physical, as well as spiritual contact. As Jesus himself said,

Whenever you have done this (good deeds, sacrifice) for one of the least important of these my brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.”

Matthew 25:40, Good News Bible (1986)

The Church also in its Catechism and in its regular ministry proclaims the “people of God” to be part of the Body of Christ alive in the world. (e.g. CCCB:830)

With this terrible turmoil we have at this time, we have also seen this real, physical manifestation of Jesus’ Body in the world through the many different actions of serving others – various front line workers risking own lives, showing compassion and making sacrifices for others that all Christians have always been called on to do. However, it is not only professed Christians, but people of all faiths or no faith who have joined in this global mission of trying to stop the pandemic and to reach out to all of those who are suffering from it.

Not only people of many different religious backgrounds, but people of every race and nation, and perhaps even more importantly, of every station in life have been called to help – and it has been marvelous to see in all this pandemic the many who are answering this call.

As with any disease epidemic many of the obvious front line providers like nurses, doctors and researchers have spun into action and their work and expertise continue to be essential and recognized as such. However, we have also all had to recognize and acknowledge the services provided by many other citizens in so many other stations in society. Cashiers in grocery stores, truck drivers, those performing deliveries to our homes, garbage collectors, news gatherers and announcers – the list could go on and on.

Last, but perhaps not least, there are people like myself who serve by staying at home – as Churchill once said, “They also serve who only stand and wait…” (Usually attributed to Winston Churchill during WWII, in reference to those who waited at home for those on the front lines.)

According to Steve Jones on medium.com the line originally is from John Milton’s “Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light is Spent.” “They Also Serve Who Only Stay at Home and Practice Social Distancing” is the paraphrase given by Jones and those of us staying at home are indeed serving in many important ways.

Many of the people who are serving by staying home are also fervently praying, reaching out to others with good wishes, songs, stories, humour, and certainly showing profound appreciation for how so many people have been able to come together to work cooperatively, even joyfully in good faith and a spirit of love for our fellow human beings.

As well, of course, by staying home and remaining as isolated as possible – social distancing – we are helping to “flatten the curve”, reduce the burden on health care services and reduce the risk to front line workers who must care for the sick.
To me, this is just another example of a manifestation of God, and more specifically Jesus, working in and through the world, here and now. Of course, many people of different faiths or with no faith in particular would see all these things from a different perspective. As well, many of the people who are performing these acts of goodness and personal sacrifice are not necessarily doing them out of any religious belief. There are many other philosophies,
many other ways to perceive what is happening in our world and we all bring our own perceptions and motivations to this reality that confronts us.

Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on what is indeed going on now in the world, from the smallest level of personal action to what is happening on the largest scales of global trauma and even possibly world revolution.

As humans we are prone to see analogies and patterns in everything – we seem to be hardwired for that – probably a survival tactic ingrained in our brains by evolution. Many of the homilies that I have seen delivered in daily Masses in recent days have made reference to the analogy between our current world crisis and the period of Lent we were in.

One priest (Daily Mass, YouTube.ca, March 31, 2020) made reference to the notion of “spiritual combat”, a phrase used by St. John Paul II and also the title of a book of the 16th century by Fr. Dom Lorenzo Scupuli ( ReligiousBookshelf.com). In this same homily, the presider referred to the the work being done by front line workers in hospitals as Corporeal Works of Mercy, while the acts that can be done by those of us at home are Spiritual Works of Mercy – reaching out to others in various ways, keeping in touch with family members, and of course, praying.

Yet another homily (Daily Mass, YouTube.ca, April 7, 2020) made reference to our
current world trials as aligning with Christ’s Passion – this pandemic being a “passion experience” for the whole world. The priests who give these talks of course profess the hope of Christ’s resurrection and their belief in God’s salvation and can assure us and themselves that all this will work out to God’s will in the end – that we should not despair but continue to hold onto faith and hope and act with compassion and love toward one another; something which I also believe.

It is worthwhile though to focus on the present time and consider some of these
analogies or metaphors in more detail. For example, looking at the COVID – 19 crisis as a spiritual combat, it can be seen as a battle between good and evil – not just in the sense of a battle between us humans (the good guys?) and the virus ( the bad guy) but as a battle in the personal conflicts each of us has to
face, practically every minute of our lives and in every aspect of our lives. At any moment we are always faced with choices – usually more than two, but to keep things simple, suppose we divide the choices into two. For example, we can chose to be fearful or hopeful, to act or not act, to be selfish or selfless, and so on.

When we apply such an analysis to ourselves and to others, certain aspects come into focus. Why are people who are acting in a certain way, or saying what they say, doing so and what are the consequences of their actions. This is not to make simple or even harsh judgements of others but to clarify things for ourselves.

In the context of the current crisis we see some individuals choosing to comply with social distancing restrictions by staying home and avoiding public interactions as much as possible, while other individuals seem to show little regard for these public health measures and continue to flaunt authority, even when they are supposed to be quarantined because of travel, etc.

On the global level we see some leaders – most dramatically the president of the US, acting with apparent meanness self centeredness – by attempting to prevent sale of surgical masks outside the US, for example. On the other hand we have seen the attempts at international cooperation of other countries through such agencies as the World Health Organization.

Within our own country we see an attempt to share the financial burden that has been visited on so many people by lay offs and closed businesses, through government financial programs of various kinds. Even though these programs will inevitably lead to greater government debt and probably higher taxes down the road, many Canadians seem broadly supportive of such moves. Contrasted with this we also have serious income inequalities that require many people – especially those at the lowest end of the income scale – to work in risky
frontline positions because they cannot afford to leave those positions.

One of the most brazen and ultimately harmful examples of such situations showed up in Ontario nursing homes where. apparently, many of the care workers had to work at more than one home or other jobs because of ongoing policies of these nursing home businesses to keep all workers on part time to avoid providing full benefits to employees. This has been a common practice for years in many industries in Canada – even the banking industry, with its enormous profits. An immediate result of this kind of situation has been a dramatic increase in the number of COVID – 19 infections in a number of nursing homes in Ontario. A tragic crisis like this pandemic can force us to see ourselves as a society. We are made to focus on things we take for granted, often ignore or simply don’t care about, but which represent real continuing injustices for so many people. Whether any long term changes will result when we are out of this time of turmoil remains to be seen.

In a somewhat related way on a global scale, it has been noticed and commented on by various commentators that the cessation of heavy normal industrial activity in cities such as Wuhan, China, has resulted in clear skies and air for the first time in a long time for the city. (YouTube.com, March 4). Commentators who have noted such facts in public have been quick not to treat the pandemic as a “good” thing – but it does raise the question of whether we really want to return to what was normal before the pandemic – especially if, during this time of trial, we are able to discern some long range ways of reorganizing our society.

For example, one of the concepts that has been talked about before the pandemic was that of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). The advantages and disadvantages of such a concept have been discussed at least academically, but it still has not become a politically active conversation – although some political parties have broached the subject. One of the obvious arguments against a GMI is the cost – and more specifically who would pay for it and how. Since the pandemic has struck, however, one of the features provincial and federal
governments have scrambled to fund are various kinds of income support. In effect such supports would (ideally) provide some kind of minimum income to people in the situation where it is unsafe for them to work or because there is no work for them.

It remains to be seen how successful these various schemes will be and what the
overall effect will be both short term and long term for the economy and also for politics.

However, one good result that may come after this is all over is that people and the politicians they vote for will come to realize how important it is to build in social supports that can be counted on to be fair and just – not only in a time of crisis, but in the so-called good times as well. When we see how dependent we are on groups of people and services that are too often taken for granted and not properly rewarded for their work we should be ready to resolve to make changes that promote economic fairness and justice for the long term.

Seeing how so many people have responded so positively and readily to serve others and promote the common good, whether through work on the “front lines” in some capacity, or through personal sacrifice in isolation or in other ways shows a glimpse of the “real” Body of Christ at work in the world. It would indeed be refreshing and something to be hoped for to see some good, lasting social changes arise from the trauma of this world wide pandemic.

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