In just a few short weeks, coronavirus statistics have become the grim metric of our upended lives. Time is now reckoned in how many have been infected, how many have died, how many may yet become ill.
Johns Hopkins University has created a near real-time map of the virus as it seethes throughout the world, with data from agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. At the dashboard’s center is a world atlas, with ominous red circles showing the relentless spread of the disease.
As I stared at that map the other morning, I wondered what individual suffering lay behind those dreadful numbers.
How do you measure the terror of gasping for air as the virus ravages your lungs?
How do you calculate the anxiety of wondering if you’ve been infected, as necessity forces you to keep working so you can feed your family?
How do you weigh hearts broken by the loss of loved ones, or spirits overwhelmed by the scope of this pandemic?
There is no math for human misery; at least, none that mortals can comprehend. For all our news updates, projections and first-person survival accounts, we will not delineate this disaster fully.
And in that shortfall, we enter into the true mystery of suffering — and redemption.
We are days away from celebrating Christ’s passion, death and resurrection: a Lenten journey we could never have predicted is drawing to its end, and in our disorientation, we may well be on surer footing than we realize.
Exiled from our churches to prevent the spread of the virus, we have been forced to reflect on a faith we’ve too often taken for granted.
And while our Masses and devotions (along with many of our daily activities) have moved online, we’ve also had to search for Christ in some overlooked places: our families, our neighbors, our own hearts.
Perhaps now we can see him more clearly in the worried eyes that peer above face masks, or hear him in the pleading of the hungry.
Throughout history, plagues have often been seen as a sign of divine wrath, yet in his extraordinary March 27 “Urbi et Orbi” blessing, Pope Francis said that we have been arraigned at our own bar: “It is not the time of your judgment, (Lord), but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away …. a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
To do that, we’ll need to admit that the calculus of the flesh — which sizes up the world according to our selfish desires — doesn’t compute.
Rather, our true standard lies in the one “who has measured with his palm the waters, marked off the heavens with a span, held in his fingers the dust of the earth, weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance” (Is 40:12).
Those same hands loved us enough stretch forth on a cross to unleash a mercy that defies all metrics, and a “compassion (that) is not spent” (Lam 3:22).
For that reason — and even amid a crisis that has brought the world to a halt — we can each lift our hearts and declare, “the Lord is my portion … therefore I will hope in him” (Lam 3:24).
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