“When is this rosary going to start working?” a friend snapped during a recent phone call. “We’ve got thousands of people praying it every night, and the coronavirus is only getting worse.”
I was silent, searching for the usual verses and phrases we Christians use to bolster each other during moments of discouragement. Several Scripture passages came to mind, but my tongue was strangely mute. Like my friend, I had at that moment a single word on my lips: when?
When would this scourge, whose victims mounted by the minute, recede?
When would doctors and health care workers get the equipment they needed to save lives while protecting their own?
When would the millions who had lost their livelihoods find jobs again?
When would our churches be unlocked so that we could celebrate the Eucharist together?
“Surely by Easter,” a loved one told me. “God will come through with a miracle just as we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Think of the impact that would have; millions would turn to him.”
For a few days, I thought maybe that might be the case. I even advanced the idea to the Almighty while in prayer: “You know, Lord, if you were to heal this world of the coronavirus on or by Easter, it would do wonders for your audience engagement.”
As a kind of “ahem” from on high, I sensed a prompting to read the Book of Judith, and the leading lady taught me a few critical lessons.
Judith is one of the seven deuterocanonical texts that were incorporated into the Catholic Bible in a kind of “round two” after the initial canon was affirmed. While not part of either the rabbinic or Protestant Scriptures, Judith was esteemed by several church fathers, and she was a revered figure in medieval piety, a chaste widow who modeled celibacy and fear of the Lord. With looks, wealth and strong faith, Judith was on everybody’s good side: “No one had a bad word to say about her, for she feared God greatly” (Jdt 8:8).
She also made for great art, since (spoiler alert) she beheaded the villainous Holofernes, the general who sought to annihilate the Israelites at the order of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians. Some of the world’s most renowned painters (including Caravaggio, whose depiction is almost photographic) have portrayed Judith wielding the sword and carrying the gory spoils.
But she didn’t undertake that savage mission on her own initiative. Rather, Judith intervened through divine inspiration to prevent the Israelites from making a terrible mistake.
Surrounded on all sides by the Assyrians, the residents of the besieged town Bethulia had run out of water, “fainting from thirst … collapsing … with no strength left in them” (Jdt 7:22). A few verses earlier, they had “cried to the Lord their God, for they were disheartened” (Jdt 7:19); a few chapters earlier, they had done the same before the temple in Jerusalem (Jdt 4:9-15).
The Israelites were exercising their faith, but those in Bethulia eventually hit a breaking point. They demanded that their leaders surrender the city to the Assyrians, concluding they were beyond rescue: “There is no one to help us now! God has sold us into (the enemy’s) hands …” (Jdt 7:25).
One leader tried to placate the crowd by essentially buying time for God to act. Uzziah exhorted the Israelites to “endure patiently five days more for the Lord our God to show mercy toward us” (Jdt 7:30). If no heavenly help arrived within that period, Uzziah promised, he would do as the residents had pleaded.
Judith caught wind of the plan and summoned Uzziah and his colleagues to her house, where she got straight to the point: “What you said to the people today is not right …. Who are you to put God to the test today, setting yourself in the place of God in human affairs?” (Jdt 8:11, 12)
In a moment of crisis, Judith was able to see the hand of God, and to put her own in it. She urged the elders to think of the earthly and spiritual consequences of their desperate strategy, which would have dishonored the divine and endangered future generations: “If (God) does not plan to come to our aid within the five days, he has it equally within his power to protect us at such time as he pleases … Do not impose conditions on the plans of the Lord our God” (Jdt 8:15,16).
Her counter-strategy was to “wait for the salvation that comes from (the Lord)” (Jdt 8:17) and to see in the enemy attack an opportunity for spiritual growth: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God for putting us to the test as he did our ancestors,” she said, stressing that God was not “taking vengeance” on the Israelites (Jdt 8:25, 27).
After a lengthy prayer (Jdt 9:1-14), Judith took forceful action, and her example resonates today: If we acknowledge, amid this horrific pandemic, that we are being tested yet not punished; if we pray with all of our being; if we give thanks through our tears; and if above all we do not place conditions on the Lord, we will be shown what to do and delivered from the coronavirus — and from all of our enemies, seen and unseen.
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