The Old Testament tells of the prophet Elijah fleeing the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had forcefully faced down the prophets of Baal, vindicating God’s way over idolatry. What does he get for his efforts? He is nearly slain for it.
Elijah flees to the mountains, huddles, and hides in a cave. God speaks to this, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The implicit answer is that Elijah is caving into fear and refusing to reengage his prophetic vocation. God cajoles Elijah out of his self-pity not by scolding him, but by teasing him out with God’s “still, small voice.”
We need to hear this story as COVID-19 reasserts itself with new regional vigor. It is timely because self-pity can govern our outlook, because fear can easily narrow our vision and distort our sense of proportionality about life’s tribulations. Psychologists use the word catastrophizing to describe how we defeat ourselves.
Clearly, we have seen better years than 2020, right? Are we calling it the worst year that has ever befallen humankind? Do we claim people have never been tested like this before? Let’s pause over that for a moment and situate ourselves.
Living in 1349 we would have seen the Black Death kill half the people in Europe.
Living in 1520 we would have witnessed smallpox ravage the Americas, including anywhere from 60-90 percent of the population who originally occupied America.
Living in 1918, the Spanish Flu killed 50,000,000 globally with 600,000 in the US.
However, the title of the worst year in history is easily claimed by the year 536 AD. Medieval historian, Michael McCormick claims that “it was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.” The year began with a mysterious dense fog extending worldwide, plunging Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness 24 hours a day for about 2 years. Consequently, global temperatures plummeted, bringing the coldest decade in over 2,000 years.
Famine was rampant as crops universally failed. Sadly, it was only prelude to further misery. This dark period of extreme cold and starvation caused economic disaster in Europe. Then in 541 A.D. an outbreak of bubonic plague further led to the death of nearly 100 million people, taking nearly half of the Byzantine Empire.
That year, 536, spawned the Dark Ages. The source of that darkness was long unknown. Recently, an Icelandic volcanic eruption in 536 was discovered, with its great plumes of ash streaming heavenward, to form a worldwide fog of darkness.
Putting now in perspective, to wear a mask, isolate, keep distance, and wash my hands is a trifle. Has our narcissistic fixation over individual rights blinded us to greater sacrifice? A people with no taste for sacrifices so tiny as wearing a mask is a people no longer capable of greatness. To that degree we give ourselves for others in loving sacrifice–hearing God’s still, small voice–is where greatness lies.