Archbishop Stephen Brislin offers his prayer and reflection for the people of the Archdiocese of Cape Town for today, Wednesday 3 February 2021, during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. It is also available on the Archdiocese of Cape Town’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Please also see below the text of his reflection, primarily for the deaf.
Peace and blessings on all of you. Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a feast that is characterized by the lighting of candles. As small as the flame of a candle is, no amount of darkness can extinguish it. This is true, too, of the small flame of faith we have in our hearts – evil cannot extinguish it. At this time most particularly, we need to fan into a flame the gift of faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:6-7), so that we can bring its light into the world. In the First Reading of todays’s Mass, from the Letter to the Hebrews (12:4-7; 11-15), we hear that God disciplines us:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is training you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet.
Let us pray:
O Lord, we offer you our hearts in your service. Be pleased to accept our offering in its imperfection and transform our hearts into what is pleasing to you. We make this prayer through Our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever, amen.
To be called a son, as in the reading we have just heard, is not meant to be gender exclusive but refers rather to a relationship of closeness and love between ourselves and God. Many people still believe that God is a punishing God, while others go to the other extreme and believe that God’s forgiveness is automatic. Some are claiming, as they did when HIV/AIDS made its first appearance, that the Covid 19 pandemic is a punishment from God resulting from the sinful and evil behaviour of humans. But is this so?
We hear clearly in this reading that God does discipline those he loves, but discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Punishment has the connotation of inflicting some sort of pain with the purpose of satisfying a wrong or eliciting remorse. Discipline, on the other hand, is fundamentally positive – it has the connotation of training and correcting a person for a positive result. Parents may discipline children in order that they can learn appropriate social skills, that they may develop good relationships with others and that they can learn to delay pleasure in order to achieve something good – for example, not going to a party but studying in order that they can pass their exams. Its aim is to build character and enable the person to become a functioning and contributing member of society. External discipline is useless, of course, unless it results in self-discipline, the ability to control and exhibit appropriate behaviour even when there is no external pressure.
So does God punish evil and sin in this world? The parable of the good seed and weeds that grow together until the harvest (Matt13:24ff), at which time the weeds will be separated from the wheat and burnt, indicates that punishment from God is not done in this world. We cannot interpret pandemics and other tragedies, such as earthquakes, as being punishments from God. Some such calamities result from human behaviour – such as the devastating climate change we are beginning to experience; others arise from the finiteness and fragility of human life and the earth.
But we do accept that God does discipline us – he allows challenging times and events to come our way. St Paul says in his letter to Titus (2:11-14), For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of the great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. St Paul compares this to the training of an athlete (1Tim 4:8). This training results in patience, endurance, faith, compassion and sanctification. It is not always pleasant to be trained in this way – think of the slogan often used by gyms: “no pain, no gain”. Spiritually this is the case as well. What is imperative, though, is to learn from the difficulties and challenges we encounter in life and to allow them to change us for the better.
So, the Covid 19 pandemic is not a punishment from God, but nonetheless it is essential that we interpret it and learn from it. C.S. Lewis, in his discourse on the Problem of Pain, wrote, Pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. And so, I think it is true that God is shouting to us in this pandemic. He is shouting to us to accept our brokenness, to humble ourselves as the created and not to see ourselves as the creator, to ponder and reflect on the meaning of our lives and our purpose in relation to our responsibility towards others and, indeed, to be my “bother’s keeper”. He is shouting to us to allow the uncertainty and anxiety of this time to mellow us and to seek God who is our true strength. It should build and deepen our character, making us better, more holy and more Christ-like people. God is shouting to us that change is necessary in the world, that we cannot ignore the suffering of poverty, oppression and violence. God is shouting to us not to ignore the cry of the poor and, indeed, not to ignore the cry of the earth.
Let us now pray for God’s blessing:
The Lord be with you R/ And with your spirit
Compassionate and merciful God, we are grateful for your care and vigilance over your people. As they endure this difficult and anxious time, mould and transform their hearts, that they may never lose trust in you and that they will seek your strength and place their hope in you. Through Christ our Lord, amen. And may Almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.