When the coronavirus crisis started, I thought of Jesus’s words: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” What a tragedy we are experiencing. Hundreds of thousands are dying, millions are suffering, and there is a global fear of uncertainty. This is the biggest crisis since the Second World War.
I completely disagree with people who say that this is God’s punishment. This attitude is foolish and primitive. The evidence says that this pandemic was caused by human beings. I also disagree with people who say that this is the end. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Is the Gospel preached to all nations? I don’t think so. Jesus’s words are clear: he says “preached,” which implies a comprehensive and organized effort.
We Christians have to think about this crisis from a Christian perspective. We cannot do it any other way. This is a reminder to us that, contrary to what many people think, we have yet many things to learn: that we are not all-powerful, that we have no control over many things, that we are limited. This is a lesson to remind us of our arrogance, which has become more and more visible because of the progress we have achieved. We can fly sophisticated drones, but we cannot predict and address a life-threatening issue.
This also should be a reminder that we have to shift our priorities from being focused on technology, sports, and the economy to things that are more essential like morality, goodness, and conscience; or, to be more precise, to put whatever we do and achieve under the umbrella of the aforementioned values. We see so little of these values in action; what we mostly encounter are scandals, accusations towards each other, and power struggles on a grand scale.
In times of crisis people show their true nature. Some will manifest their goodness and others their selfishness. We see the sacrifices of healthcare workers putting their lives in danger. Amazingly, we hear of some elderly people who give up their ventilators to younger people and accept their death. This is what I am talking about. You can name it whatever you want; I will name it Jesus’s spirit, the spirit of self-sacrifice for others, the proof of love through action.
We are in desperate need of such a spirit. Our younger generations are growing up with no education in ethics and morality; they don’t know what is good and what is evil. Religion cannot be taught in the schools due to the separation of the church and the state, but in my opinion, there should be some form of ethical education in schools and other educational institutions. This education could be based on the ethical teachings of different religions and humanitarians and highlight their many similarities.
We know ourselves better in these times when we are tested. Some people may end up being weakened and others may end up stronger. The great task before us is to face this crisis with dignity and to keep our integrity. It is not easy, but it is possible. We may suffer, we may cry, our faith may be tested, but in the end, it is very important to see that we become better human beings and better Christians.
In times of war, genocide, famine, or pandemic, people ask the same question that Jesus asked on the cross when he screamed: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why did the Father, the almighty God, not help his Son on the cross? Jesus went through the exact same kind of suffering that people go through during great calamities. But in the end, he died in peace, saying: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” We know what happened to Jesus; we recently celebrated his resurrection. There is no rational explanation to understand such mysteries; we can only have peace when we start looking into such realities through our hearts and souls.
I think there will be an increase in faith in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Suffering leads people to seek answers to difficult questions, and that search, in many cases, leads ultimately to God. Suffering is a school to better understand what life is about. Suffering is a part of happiness; there is no happiness with no suffering.
When people say that they only believe in what they can see and touch, they are limiting themselves. Life is much more than that. It is during calamities that people begin to consider things they have never considered before. They understand that it is not possible to arrive at the answers to all of their questions purely through their minds. Living in the midst of tragedy gives them a clue, pushes them to break the boundaries and misconceptions that are limiting them and to start connecting to life’s invisible realities, to the mystery of existence, to the core of knowing what life is.
After the Armenian genocide, the vast majority of Armenians didn’t lose their faith. I can testify that I got to know many survivors of the genocide, and all of them, especially the women, were deeply faithful people. We know of similar cases where Jews who survived the Holocaust and Christians who survived the cruel persecutions of the Soviet regime, especially during Stalin’s time, felt their faith deepen even after witnessing such horrific, unspeakable acts.
Humanity should come out of this current pandemic stronger and wiser. Our failure to learn the lessons of World War I led to the outbreak of World War II. After World War II, we had a deeper understanding of the human cost of war. Today there are no active war zones in the Western Hemisphere. However, it is clear that we still have much to learn, as indicated by the many wars and conflicts that continue to decimate parts of our world.
This crisis will end, the world will not be the same as it was before, and new systems will emerge. But the most important thing is to reformulate our priorities, to reset our agendas to prevent such crises from happening again. We must strive to make the world a better place, one in which the conscience is dominant determinant of our actions.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Orthodoxy Cognate Page.