Pandemics, like other suffering, set a pin on the map of history, showing us a little of our place compared to what has come before. In this pandemic, we live again in the days of wizards, people who tell us confidently how to tame God with a word, a thought, a sign.
They weave their spell by tapping the primeval desire to catch divinity in a net, to trick a god into serving you and thus overcome the fierce terrors of mortality and a life of suffering. Though the Judeo-Christian tradition has steadfastly resisted such thinking, it is the thinking endemic to paganism, or what we would call “spiritual but not religious” or “positive thinking.” Some mistakenly call it “faith.” It’s the shape of the thought pattern of people who talk about the Universe doing things for them or who believe they can control their fate with karma.
It’s the stuff of magicians and lords of old who tamed dragons by tricking them in the Old Tongue, the ancient speech shared by all wise beings and largely forgotten by humankind. The desire for control and justice as we see it is the ancient tongue that lashes like wildfire through every generation. Will to power is the language of dragons. It is also known by other names: Magic, after Simon Magus who tried to buy the Holy Spirit (and failed); Concupiscence, that old tendency towards sin that knocks so many good intentions off course (Love, yes, but can’t I control you, also?); It is the language of dust and tombs.
When we come face to face with mortality, the Old Tongue is the dust in our mouths when we tell people that they need not fear to catch a virus or remain disabled, if only they have faith. In the Old Tongue, “faith” means “trickery.” It means “contract” and “tit for tat”. It means “to drive a spile into the underside of a fat, distant god so that some of the lifeblood of him trickles down into our buckets”.
But we have a new Word in the Church, a Word older than creation. It means life, and it means love, and light, and we know that Word as a Person, Jesus Christ. He is our life, love, light, joy, peace, health, and we are in Him. He is with us.
“With Us” is as close as the Old Tongue gets to saying His name. In the Old Tongue, “With Us” is a threat. But the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, turning “With Us” into a gift and the best way we can talk about healing.
The good thing about sickness and disability, whatever other good things grow in the lives of the good people (called so by God who made us and is with us) that bear it, is that illness and disability fill our old tongues with dust until we seek a better Word. Bodily suffering is witness to God With Us.
“With Us” is why we say, “Glory to God in all things!”
It is a fierce and terrible love, more ancient than our sins, outlasting illness and death and any prosperity ill-gotten by tricksters. God “With Us” turns our hearts towards each other in love even when love requires us to stay apart for a time to protect the most vulnerable among us. The meter of “With Us” acts rhymes with both Lent and Pascha, withdrawal, denial, and freedom, embrace. It is joy through and through, to those who suffer and those who bear with the suffering. All of the suffering is the suffering of the Word With Us. The Word is With Us in all.
“With Us!” say the Christians, and to those who only know remnants of the Old Tongue and none of the new and ancient one, “With Us!” sounds like “Cross.”