Covid 19

A Need for Sackcloth

Sackcloth, especially when accompanied by sitting in ashes, has a rich history in the Scriptures and the life of the early church. In today’s world it is considered as beyond medieval in terms of its relevance, and barbaric in terms of a punishment. In fact, though, it was less punishment than it was repentance.

Sackcloth and ashes were used as very public displays of one’s sins and a sign of contrition—a promise not to sin again once the time of repentance was finished. Perhaps we should consider bringing back the practice. And do so on a very public scale.

The Covid 19 pandemic has unmasked a number of deep-seated issues festering within us all. On the surface some seem selfish and even infantile. Such as the suggestion that wearing a mask impinges on our freedom.

Others appeal more fundamentally to the Constitution, with the suggestion that restricting religious services somehow violates the First Amendment. That position is sometimes coupled with the absurdity that God will protect worshippers from falling ill to the power of the virus. In reality, a number of ministers who claimed that protection and continued to lead worship services have themselves died from Covid 19. Not intending to sound insensitive, there might be some poetic justice in that.

One would hope that a rational Supreme Court would see through the fallacy of that First Amendment argument to the more fundamental principle of life. But that hope was dashed by Justices who are less rational than we thought. What is most disconcerting, from a Christian point of view, is the twisted logic that religious freedom supersedes the government’s power to protect its citizens during a pandemic. Take Washington, D.C.

I have long been an admirer of Archbishop Wilton Gregory. When Pope Francis appointed him to head the Archdiocese I thought it was an excellent choice, as was the decision to elevate Gregory to the College of Cardinals. This is a man whom I have always considered to be a faithful advocate of the Gospel, both in word and deed.

However, he recently joined the chorus of misguided religious leaders by filing a lawsuit against the District of Columbia’s restrictions on houses of worship. He even argued his case in an op-ed piece printed in the Washington Post. Others have already demonstrated the weaknesses of the Cardinal’s position, particularly his comparison of religious services to retail establishments and liquor stores. Shoppers do not gather together for an hour shouting and singing God’s praises as they select their bread and wine.

Indeed Cardinal Gregory is correct to emphasize the importance of worship to believers, as well as the significance of the Christmas season. Yet Easter, being the core of the Christian Kerygma, is far more important. Yet the church survived the restrictions in place last spring. Still, there is a deeper concern at issue here. And it is to be found in the Gospel itself.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) we are presented with the measurement of one’s worthiness to enter into the Kingdom. It has nothing to do with church attendance or, for that matter, with prayer. The sole criteria is how we treat one another, specifically those in need. Don’t get me wrong. Worship is important. But when it jeopardizes the health of the community—especially during a pandemic—it takes a back seat to restrictions. Does anyone really believe that God cares more about us worshipping him than he does about us protecting each other? The passage cited above would suggest exactly the opposite: “What you did to the least of these you did to me.” Cardinal Gregory would never suggest, in word, that we expose each other to Covid 19. But his lawsuit does exactly that—in deed.

There is an obvious contingency at work here. It is known as a super spreader event. Gathering people together during a pandemic, inside a closed building, to sing and pray aloud, exposes not only the worshippers, but the broader community to Covid 19. Couple that with what Jesus says, and we can conclude that the contingency is clearly sinful.

Perhaps the Cardinal would consider another way to proclaim the Good News. More powerful than lawsuits or op-ed articles in the local paper, would be acknowledging super spreader events and the sinfulness of encouraging them. A week or ten days of wearing sackcloth and ashes in the nation’s capitol might awaken in all Catholics a commitment to the Good News. Who knows? It might even even have an effect on Congress.
Comments