The following is the homily Deacon Pat Hessel has shared with staff from various schools in Spruce Grove & Stony Plain (part of Evergreen Catholic where I work), as we prepare to launch into the 2020-21 school year:
I’m an epidemiologist. Among other things, epidemiologists investigate epidemics. An epidemic is an increase in the occurrence of a disease or other health condition. So, for example, after World War II, when cigarette smoking became much more common, many countries experienced epidemics of lung cancer and other lung diseases.
When an epidemic spreads over a large area, like a continent or the entire world, it’s called a pandemic. The term pandemic typically refers to infectious diseases. And, of course, most of the world is currently dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s classified as a pandemic because it’s a new disease. We sometimes hear it referred to as the novel (or new) coronavirus. And it has spread around the world. So, it’s a pandemic.
Epidemiologists study epidemics and pandemics for several reasons. They want to be able to give a heads-up to the health care system – so they can be prepared. But more importantly, they want to find ways to prevent people from getting sick, whether that’s from lung cancer or the coronavirus. When you hear people on television telling you that wearing masks and social distancing will prevent a certain percent of coronavirus cases or deaths, those percentage figures come from epidemiologists.
Well, diseases are not the only bad things that happen in this world. Meteorologists study the weather, in part to protect us from the effects of things like hurricanes, floods, and tornados. Seismologists try to predict earthquakes – again, to warn us or protect us from the harm caused by them.
A lot of bad things happen in this world because of diseases and natural disasters. But a lot of the bad things that happen, happen because we make bad decisions – bad moral decisions, bad spiritual decisions, bad interpersonal decisions. Well, that’s not new. The human species is somewhere between 200 and 300,000 years old. That’s how long we’ve been making bad decisions.
At some point God chose to reveal himself to us in a special way. And we started writing these things down. The Bible – the word of God – is a collection of books written by different authors at different times, with different purposes. But in many of the books of the Bible, God is acting like our moral and spiritual epidemiologist. Documenting through the words of the sacred authors, the spread of dysfunction in human beings and human society – pointing it out so that it can be cured or prevented. God’s communication with us was never more clear or compelling than when Jesus came to live among us. That’s why the four gospels are, for all Christians, the most important books in the Bible.
You might reasonably ask how relevant the Bible is for people today. The most recent book of the Bible was written more than 1,900 years ago. Well, some things change and some things don’t. The current coronavirus is new, but pandemics aren’t. Between 1918 and 1920, over a third of the world’s population was infected with an influenza virus that killed between 20 and 50 million people. Between 1346 and 1353, the Bubonic Plague killed between a third and half of the population of Europe.
Internet pornography is a modern pandemic, but 2,000 years ago Jesus said: “…anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The Book of Exodus was written more than 2,500 years ago. Moses told the people: “You shall not steal.” No one was stealing FedEx packages off of porches back then, but you can see that the instruction is still relevant. In the first century, Paul said: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” He didn’t mention Johnnie Walker Red or marijuana, but you get the idea.
The way we express our human weaknesses changes over time, but our human weaknesses are our human weaknesses. And God, through the sacred writers of Scripture, and most perfectly through Jesus, has called them out.
If we follow the analogy of God as the moral/spiritual epidemiologist, we know that talking about human weaknesses like the ones we just mentioned, as God has through the sacred authors, helps us to diagnose these diseases and measure their spread. We know that the goal of epidemiology is to cure or prevent disease, and so it is with the word of God. And for all these human weaknesses, both the cure and the primary preventive measure is love.
The Bible is one great love story. The Old Testament chronicles God’s love for the chosen people – Israel. And the New Testament lays out the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made to save humankind. In the Old Testament, in the third book of the Bible, we hear Moses say that we must love our neighbour as our self. And in the New Testament Jesus said: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
If we think of sin as a pandemic, then love is the cure. If we want to prevent the pandemic in the first place, then love is the face mask and the social distancing. Inconvenient? Yes, sometimes. A sacrifice? Yes, sometimes. Jesus understood the difficulties encountered in addressing the moral and spiritual pandemics caused by human weaknesses. But after encouraging his disciples to keep the commandments, Jesus said: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” It is through a life of love that we truly find joy, and that we find true freedom. It has been said quite correctly that we are never freer than when, for the sake of others, we say “Yes” to God and “no” to things we are otherwise free to pursue.
But I think we sometimes run away from the word of God, religion, and even God – because we think the Bible is irrelevant, religion is just a bunch of dos and don’ts, and God only wants to beat us up and send us to hell. I hope you can see that nothing could be further from the truth.
I understand that your theme for the year is: “Respond to God’s word with love.” God is love. How else could we respond?