In the midst of all the talk of “social distancing” and “self-isolation”, I find myself reflecting this weekend on two consoling images from the scriptures: the first is of a good and gentle Shepherd; the second, of a loving and caring Mother.
The Psalm for Mass this weekend is one of the most well-loved passages in the Bible: Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want”. It is a hymn to trust; there is no doubt that God is present, even in the midst of darkness and in the valley of death and fear – the danger is less because God is there. God is beside us to guide us safely with crook and staff; God follows us with goodness and kindness; anointing and soothing our pain; preparing for us a banquet of rich food and wine; and, leading a way through the desolation of the desert to restful green pastures and to the still life-giving waters of peace. Psalm 23 reminds me that God accompanies me; God walks beside me, especially when I am most in danger.
The second consoling image that comes to me this weekend is that of a loving and caring Mother. We celebrate Mother’s Day and, although it will be different this year – with all the restrictions – still we will do our best to remember our mothers – living or dead – and express our love and gratitude to, and for, them.
We tend to think more often of God as a loving Father, but the Bible is filled reminders that God has also all the very best qualities of a tender and caring mother who is prepared to sacrifice her own comforts for the love of her children. Mass this Sunday opens with an image of maternal intimacy from the prophet Isaiah: God’s children are described as gathered like young infants at their mother’s consoling breast. God never forgets us. Like a loving mother, God’s tender loving kindness is there for us always.
These two images – of the gentle shepherd, and a loving mother – are worth holding onto as we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the spread of the coronavirus. Social distancing may be essential for this world at this time, but lockdown never applies to God, who is always near.
This past week it has dawned on us that our normal behaviors and lifestyle must change radically if we are to halt the destructive spread of Covid-19. It is challenging the way we live, pray, relate and do business. There is so much talk of restrictions and social distancing and self-isolation; we are asked to keep apart from others; our normal instincts for closeness and tenderness must be checked in order to keep ourselves and others safe. Thankfully social media and electronic communication have allowed us to keep in touch with our loved ones, to maintain essential services in business and trade and to sustain a network of prayer to connect us spiritually during these trying times.
The challenge that we all face is how to maintain spiritual “closeness”, compassion and solidarity during a time of necessary social distancing and avoidance. This Lent, like no other, we are learning the meaning of self-sacrifice and self-denial for the greater good. Our health workers are pleading with us to take the restrictions seriously, to maintain hand-washing and good hygiene, not just to protect ourselves, but so that we can delay and lessen the surge in infections and thereby contribute positively to the common good.
Jesus spoke of the greatest commandment as being the commandment to love – to love God and to love neighbor as yourself; we are learning through this crisis that every single one of us can contribute to spreading that love to help protect the most vulnerable.
As Church during this time we continue to gather for prayer – no longer physically in most cases – but linked over the internet as a congregation in spiritual communion with one another. After Mass on Saint Patrick’s Day, which was beamed over the webcam from the Cathedral in Armagh, I received messages from Singapore, Washington and Madrid, from Coalisland, Buncrana and London – people telling me that they were pleased to be able to share with me in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I may be looking out at empty pews, but in my mind’s eye and with the eyes of my heart, I can see you in your living rooms, in nursing homes, hospital wards or perhaps driving in your cars, all linked spiritually in the “family of families” that is the Church.
In particular, I wish to express our spiritual closeness to our brothers and sisters who are sick – thinking of those who have already contracted the virus, and those who have chosen to self-isolate as a precaution to protect others. You are especially in our thoughts and prayers today. We ask God to gather you close in love and protection and to be with those who are caring for you.
In prayerful solidarity we also think of those who have been laid off from work because of these unprecedented circumstances: the travel, retail, and hospitality industries seem to have been hit very hard in recent weeks, amongst others, and many of you have taken cuts in hours and in pay. Many small and medium enterprises have collapsed or had to be temporarily shut down. I welcome and acknowledge the efforts that are being made by government to alleviate hardship, to provide grants and financial packages to offset the worst impact of this crisis. I also appeal for generosity and flexibility from lenders, private landlords, and financiers with regard to loan repayments, mortgages, and outstanding debts. Many people in our society simply live from week to week and whilst this crisis is difficult for most – it can present seemingly impossible burdens for some. Social solidarity and compassion during this time of social distancing is essential and welcome.
As the Church of Christ, who called us always to look out for those on the margins, we must continue to have a preferential option for the weak and to seek out and speak out on behalf of the most marginalized. The impact of Covid-19 on the poorest among us is potentially devastating. What does it mean for the homeless to self-isolate? What might be the impact of the Coronavirus on those in refugee camps or hostels? For those in our society who are already struggling to access good health and housing and hygiene services, the virus presents great risks to their lives.
The charity sector is anticipating big demand in the coming weeks and yet I’m told it will struggle because normal fundraising for charities is seriously curtailed due to the restrictions. I have spoken in recent days with charities who support the needy, who provide counseling to families, who operate food banks and soup kitchens, who respond to domestic violence, who provide comfort and outreach to the elderly and those living alone, who provide aid to those poorest peoples of the world for whom the impact of Covid-19 is likely to be calamitous. Many charities are dependent on Church collections or on special fundraising events connected with concerts or sporting events or special gatherings – which have largely been canceled or postponed. I appeal therefore today to your generosity, even in these straitened times, to support your local charities and parishes via online or postal donations so that their essential work can continue.
It is heart-warming to note the large number of people, including many young people, who have already volunteered their help e.g. to health services, to reaching out to the vulnerable, to operating friendly phone calls and online messaging services and assisting others to get online for prayer. I also appreciate the efforts of our priests, hospital chaplains, religious and pastoral workers, many of whom are vulnerable themselves, and who are wrapping a blanket of prayer and compassion around us during these trying times – keeping in touch with the sick, the elderly and those living alone, praying or reading Gods’ Word with them over the phone or online, and ensuring continuity of prayer, care, and pastoral services.
A strange quietness has descended on our communities and town centers these days. And in our homes, our families are gathering, as if in a time of retreat. During these days I want to assure you that the family of God that is the Church continues to gather around you, the Church continues to accompany you along this valley of darkness and fear, with prayer, consolation, and hope – like the gentle Good Shepherd, like a loving Mother – always at your side.
May God bless and protect you always. Amen
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland