by Fr. Patrick Tishel
The studies that are in process on the Coronavirus, from the standpoint of epidemiology, have generated statistical models of the spread of the virus, clarity about methods of transmission, and identifying who are most vulnerable.
This valuable information has led to a threefold response: a call to immediate social distancing to keep the virus from spreading to new hosts; the commonsensical approach of good hand hygiene–hand washing, sneezing in tissues or the elbow when necessary; staying home when sick, building up the immune system and working on general health. These are very important responses which we need to explore in more depth.
The fact that we are in the midst of Great Lent suggests an additional powerful and effective response on another level. We can call this response the Nineveh Response, the power of repentance that changes the outcome.
As you might already know, Nineveh was the capital city of the powerful Assyrian Empire, a city that was so vast that it would take a person three days to encircle it by foot. It was a corrupt idol-worshipping city, an enemy of the Israelites but God nonetheless had pity on them.
The Lord said to Jonah: “Arise; go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it what I command you.”
And what was he to preach to these idol-worshippers? Jonah went throughout the city crying: “Within 40 days shall Nineveh be destroyed.”
These words elicited an immediate and deep response. The King himself laid aside his royal robes, covered himself instead with sackcloth and sat on a heap of ashes as a symbol of his humble repentance. The word was sent out to all the people of Nineveh to fast, to seek the Lord and turn from their sins. All the people of the city after hearing God’s warning through Jonah began to repent, to change sincerely and deeply, which drew down God’s grace instead of His wrath. The city was saved.
In our present situation we appreciate all the work done in the medical and scientific realm but we also recognize its limits. Instead evoking fear or panic these limits should evoke faith if we realize through this the Lord’s words: “With men it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” Where human efforts stop or our knowledge ceases, God is found to be boundless in power and knowledge.
The Nineveh Response shows God’s Fatherly love for all His children, even those outside the Israelite circle. It also shows that through repentance and God’s grace we alter statistical probability and turn sorrow into joy. “Repent,” St. John of Kronstadt said, “and the Kingdom of God will fill you.”
The Nineveh response is based on repentance, real sincere change and return to God. We accomplish this through living out the sacramental life, participating in the prayers and practices of Great Lent, praying the Prayer of St. Ephraim and other compunctionate prayers such as the Prayer of the Optina Elders, reading of the psalter and others.
Let’s take advantage of all the various ways to respond to the challenge at hand and most especially the powerful Nineveh Response that leads to repentance and the grace of God. Isn’t it clear that the troubles we face give us the extra strength to change for the better?
With love in Christ and prayers for all,
Fr. Patrick Tishel
Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church