Doing Theology in a Time of Pandemic

by Doru Costache

There’s no need to describe the current health crisis. Humankind has known various scourges in the past. What would theology have to say about the coronavirus pandemic? Well, it could say a number of things. For example, it could look at the plagues of Egypt as an appropriate key to understand such tragic events. But I won’t take this approach here. What I intend to do is just offer snippets of my relevant activities in the last few days.

First, I got enthusiastically involved in the setting up of a theological research centre at the Sydney College of Divinity. The initiative belongs to Professor Neil Ormerod, and it has been embraced by many scholars of theology from across the spectrum. Neil honoured me by inviting me to be part, together with him and two other colleagues, of the working party planning the activity of the centre. This is were this update becomes relevant. As we were thinking of how to proceed to bring together theologians of a range of ecclesial traditions, I suggested the topic which makes for the title of this essay (after Neil’s elegant polishing). Therefore, people, stay tuned to hear from time to time about our activities. It is an exciting initiative and, given our inaugural topic, one that will hopefully cast some light upon the darkness of this time.

Second, in my capacity as cochair of the New South Wales Ecumenical Council’s Theology Reflection Commission, I was asked to open this week’s meeting with a spiritual reflection. Since these days we go through what we go, I thought that it would be useful to share my thoughts with you.

The threat of coronavirus cannot be underestimated and I am happy to see that prophylactic measures have been recently implemented in most churches and associated institutions. We all took this threat too lightly, but, as they say, better late than never. That said, regardless of what we undertake as precautionary measures, we must wholeheartedly turn to our Lord with humility and hope.

As our politicians remind us, “we are in this” together with all of humankind, believers or not. What makes the difference for us, Christians, is our awareness that Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” loves us with infinite love. Together with Saint Paul, we therefore confess: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Christ’s love fulfils our lives, irrespective of what befalls us. Still, we cling to this life—God’s gift—asking to be spared. Some of us are afraid. Some of us are placid. We all feel defenceless. There is no shame in feeling downcast, and in moments such as these our prayer must intensify.

I propose that, in the quiet of our homes, we meditate on a string of scriptural verses from Isaiah 9-11. The Orthodox Church of Byzantine tradition chants them throughout Lent on weekdays, in the office of great compline. Here is the text as we chant it, each verse being followed by the refrain “For God is with us”:

God is with us. Know this, O Gentiles, and be defeated. For God is with us.

Give ear, all you to the very ends of the earth. For God is with us.

Be defeated although you are strong. For God is with us.

For even if you should be strong again, you will be defeated again. For God is with us.

Then too, whatever counsel you take, the Lord will scatter it abroad. For God is with us.

And whatever word you shall speak, it will not continue among you. For God is with us.

But do not be afraid of their terror, nor be troubled. For God is with us.

Sanctify the Lord Himself, and He shall be your fear. For God is with us.

So if you trust in Him, He shall be as a sanctuary for you. For God is with us.

I shall wait for God, and I will trust in Him. For God is with us.

Behold, I and the children God gave me. For God is with us.

A people who walk in darkness, behold a great light. For God is with us.

And you who dwell in the country of the shadow of death, upon you a light will shine. For God is with us.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. For God is with us.

And the government will be upon His shoulder. For God is with us.

And of His peace there is no end. For God is with us.

His name will be called the Angel of Great Counsel. For God is with us.

Wonderful Counsellor. For God is with us.

Mighty God, Master, Prince of Peace. For God is with us.

Father of the age to come. For God is with us.

Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For God is with us.

Both now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen. For God is with us.

God is with us. Know this, O Gentiles, and be defeated. For God is with us.

This form of celebrating the Lord’s mystical name, Emmanuel, is the equivalent of Saint Patrick’s “Breastplate.” I draw this connection not only to mark the recent (quiet, all too quiet) celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day. The “Breastplate” is one of the most beautiful and reassuring medieval (or is it early Christian?) Christ-centred texts. In both hymns, the “Breastplate” and the “Song of Isaiah,” as the above is known, runs the same message. In what follows, I briefly meditate on the “Song of Isaiah.”

While we exercise remembrance of the Lord, indeed, that God is with us—Emmanuel—we focus on his providence and salvation to strengthen our hope. It is true that in our case enemies are not the barbarians at the gate—they are tiny, invisible beings, part of the creation which for good reason rebells against us from time to time. For a moving description of this rebellion, you might wish to check out Saint Symeon the New Theologian’s First Ethical Discourse 2. Closer to us, Hollywood alerted us about the same. Do you remember the 2008 movie, The Happening? Well, it’s happening… In a time like this, we turn to Emmanuel and ask Him to be with us even though we aren’t always with Him. And practicing remembrance of the Lord’s salvation, we find comfort, with Isaiah and Paul, that nothing can separate us from His love. Glory be to Him!

L 2 R: Lex and I. Winnererremy Bay, 19 March 2020

Third, I conversed with my dear friend, The Revd Dr Lex Akers, giving substance to what theology in a time of pandemic might be. For one, we forgot about it, spiralling deeper and deeper into the mystery of Jesus Christ, whom we contemplated within Scripture and outside Scripture. We did talk about the current health crisis, but soon we pushed it away, been completely absorbed by our conversation. I do not intend to disclose the core of our conversation; there are some things which make sense only when and where they are discussed; I can only suggest that focusing upon the Lord might alleviate the fear and the sense of helplessness that people might experience in times such as this. “God-is-with-us!”

Keep praying. Believe in the mercy of the Lord. Fear not, whatever happens.

19 March 2020 © AIOCS