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The Plague And Mass

On the nature of sacrifice.


I had scheduled my retreat for mid-April last year, ignorant that the entire country would shut down a few weeks before. The sisters who offered to put me up live on a rural property, and thus could offer me a relatively sheltered place to hide from the coronavirus. However, I recognized that I could be introducing a deadly pathogen into a quarantined community and emailed Mother Superior to ask permission before I traveled out there. She told me that if her community got the virus from a priest by helping him pray and more closely unite himself to God’s will, they would happily die for the glory of God’s kingdom. This did not make me feel better. But I did decide to go to their house and stay for my retreat. As far as I am aware, none of the sisters took ill.

The precarious situation motivated me to take very seriously my responsibility to pray for the sisters who hosted me, and for the health and safety of my parishioners and the world at large. So, dutifully, on every day permitted by the calendar during my retreat, I prayed the Mass from the 1962 Missal, “Recordare, Domine,” for times of plague and imminent danger of death. The prayers are a beautiful and compelling plea to the Lord to remember His mercy towards us, and to hold back the hand of the Angel of Death. The collect begins, “O God, who does not desire death for the sinner, but repentance. . .” God has told us that He does not desire our deaths, but we see many dying around us. We know that we are sinners, and that the sinfulness of humanity could justly receive God’s wrath. But, in the tract, we find the courage to ask: “Lord, do not treat us according to our sins, nor pay us back according to our iniquity.” We know our sins merit death, but we have found the courage in God’s own testimony to His mercy to ask for life instead. And He does, indeed, have the power to give life. The Gospel records Jesus’ curing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus merely “commands” the fever, and her health is restored. To this God, who could justly condemn us, but instead desires to give us life, I offered the Mass day after day. I asked, along with the Secret prayer during the Offertory, “Let the sacrifice which we now offer assist us, we beseech you, O Lord; may it wholly release us from sin and deliver us from all ruin and destruction.”

The texts for this Mass were arranged about seven hundred years ago, at the request of Pope Clement VI, in order to pray against the ravages of the Black Death—a very different situation from our own. That does not mean that these prayers cannot help us to understand these difficult times. During my retreat, I considered and prayed about the two biblical plagues mentioned in the readings and prayers of the Mass, “Recordare, Domine,” with two questions in mind. The two plagues are the second book of Samuel, in which Israel is punished with a plague because David conducts a census; and Numbers, in which Israel rebels against the priesthood and leadership of Aaron and Moses. My two questions were: what about those specific sins made a plague an appropriate punishment from the Lord, and what kind of offering atoned for that sin and ended the plague?

The events of the second book of Samuel occur late in King David’s life. God has abundantly blessed him with peace on every side, and rest from his enemies. The prior chapter details the great extent of his armies, and the glorious deeds of his generals in battle. Immediately following this litany of David’s military might is the opening of the twenty-fourth chapter: “Again, the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” Although it is not explicit, the implication is certainly that the false confidence of Israel in its armies and material splendor provoked the Lord to anger. The first result of God’s anger was a perverse idea in the head of the king to think about his country in terms of population, material prosperity, and political strength. This is in direct contrast to what David himself recorded as the true strength of Israel in the Psalms: “Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall; but we shall rise and stand upright.” Earlier in his life, David had trusted in the Lord for victory over Goliath and Saul, and was rewarded. Now, he is measuring the worth of his kingdom in terms of horses and chariots.

Immediately upon receiving the results of the census from his general, Joab, “David’s heart smote him, and he said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done.’” Typically, David is quick to recognize his sinfulness and beg the Lord for mercy, but this time it is too late. He has already involved the whole nation in his sin against God’s providence and protection. The prophet Gad, at God’s bidding, offers David the choice of three punishments: “Three years of famine, fleeing three months before your foes while they pursue you, or three days’ pestilence in the land.” David chooses the plague: “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” Thus, “the Lord sent a pestilence” for the appointed time, and “seventy thousand” died. However, “when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented of the evil . . . ‘It is enough! Now stay your hand.’” At that time, “the angel was by the threshing floor of Areuna the Jebusite.” The plague had begun in the very north-east corner of Israel and run its way through much of the population, stopping before it reached Jerusalem, at a particular place— mirroring the movement of the census takers, in fact.

It is important to point out that no human action stopped the plague. God appointed it for a time, and it ran its course. How it played out, though, seems to be specifically intended by God to bring David to further repentance on behalf of his people. When David saw that much of Israel had suffered, but his own city was spared, “David spoke to the Lord, ‘Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, be against me and against my father’s house.’” Gad then tells David how to atone for his sin: “Go up, rear an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Areuna the Jebusite,” where the plague had ended. Areuna is happy to permit the king to use his land to worship the Lord, and even offers to give David the land and sacrificial oxen for free. But David refuses: “No, I will buy it of you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing.” The altar was built, the oxen were burnt, and “the Lord heeded the supplications for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.”

Ultimately no sacrifice or offering could have ended the plague. The sin that brought it on was the consideration of power and victory in human terms. No human means could have power or victory over the disease. God’s absolute sovereignty over Israel was made clear. As the Lord said through Moses, “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” David, and through him all of Israel, was called to submit to this absolutely sovereign God, and David accomplished this by a thanksgiving offering. In the exact place where God’s inscrutable wisdom decreed that the plague should end, the king reconsecrated Israel to God and remembered that God is the sole strength, defense, and hope for His people.

The plague described in Numbers is mentioned only briefly in the Mass against plagues, but in what might be the most dramatic Offertory antiphon of all time: “The high priest stood between the dead and the living, having a golden censer in his hand: he appeased the wrath of God, and the affliction from the Lord ceased.” This is the liturgical act that ended a plague among the Israelite camp in the desert. It is the end of a story that begins with rebellion against Aaron and Moses. Korah, of the tribe of Levi (but not Aaron’s family), and Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben, object to the liturgical monopoly God’s law has given to the high priests.

These three accuse Aaron and Moses: “All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” The rebellion is specifically against the separation of priests from the rest of Israel. The law revealed on Sinai called for priests to be separated from the rest for the sake of serving God. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rejected that priestly distinction. They planned to prove the law of God false by burning incense themselves, contrary to the law. If their sacrifice was accepted, Moses and Aaron would be proven wrong. But their offering was not accepted. Moses knew that the rebellion would meet with a swift reprimand from the Lord, and told the rest of Israel to move away. Separated from the rest of the Israelites, the rebels were destroyed: “The ground under them split asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up . . . and so they went down alive into Sheol.” The rebellion against the Lord’s prescribed form of worship was so severely sinful that the offenders were sucked alive into hell.

But we are not yet to the plague. After the earth had swallowed up the rebels, the people of Israel blamed Moses and Aaron for the destruction. “All the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord.’” The people then attempted to worship at the sanctuary, the tabernacle, on their own, without the assistance of Aaron and Moses. “And behold: the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared.” In a certain sense, this second rebellion works. The people attempt to enter the presence of God without the mediation of priests, and the glory of the Lord does indeed descend upon the tent. But their disobedience has made them unworthy to “be in the presence of the Lord and minister to Him.” Being in the presence of the Lord is the eternal happiness of the just, but His presence is too great and terrible for those who do not love Him and follow his ways. The people are in trouble.

Moses and Aaron recognized the peril the people had placed themselves in, and ran to the tent of meeting “and fell on their faces.” The Lord counseled Moses, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment!” But Moses did not listen; instead, he instructed Aaron to “Take your censer, and put fire in it from off the altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation, and make atonement for them: for wrath has gone forth from the Lord; the plague has begun.” Aaron followed Moses’ instruction, took the thurible, and rushed into the midst of the people dying from plague to make atonement. This offering of incense from the properly consecrated high priest was accepted. “He stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped.” Following this, the Lord caused Aaron’s staff to sprout and blossom with flowers, and even to produce almonds, so as to prove that God had chosen the line of Aaron for high priesthood.

There is a lot going on here, but one can take several clear points from it. First, it is plainly part of God’s inscrutable will that some men should be separated from the rest of the people to serve as priests. God had chosen to mediate His relationship to His people through these men set aside for his service. Korah, Abiram, and Dathan were sucked into hell as punishment for claiming to be priests without proper consecration; the people were afflicted with plague for seeking to approach the glory of the Lord without the priesthood.

A second point is that this separation was not for the priests’ benefit, but for that of the people. Moses and Aaron separated themselves from Abiram, Dathan, and Korah, who falsely claimed the priesthood for all. They did not, however, separate themselves from the people who were suffering as a result their sins. In fact, God’s command to Moses to get away from the people was a test. The Lord had commanded the high priest to atone for the people’s sin by sacrifice. Moses and Aaron could have avoided the people to preserve themselves, but instead they chose to follow God’s will by offering a sacrifice of incense to atone for the people’s sin of rebellion. God desired to show the Israelites mercy, and chose Moses and Aaron to make that mercy present. By giving them the option of preserving themselves, God made it clear that Moses and Aaron exercised the priestly ministry at their own risk, on behalf of a people who desperately needed God’s forgiveness.

Finally, the resolution of the plague shows God’s desire to point out where His mercy can be found. The Lord had appointed the family of Aaron as the ministers of his mercy and love to the Israelites. God wanted the Israelites to seek His face, in the way which He had chosen and laid out for them. Ending the plague by the ministry of the lawful high priest, and not through other kinds of sacrifices and offerings, manifests the inner principle of the law: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” All of the Lord’s actions in quelling the rebellion of Korah, Abiram, and Dathan, and then of the whole people, are laid out so as to call the people of Israel to obedience in their worship.

Claiming to employ these two biblical plagues like some secret key to understand the coronavirus and make predictions would be hubris, and I won’t attempt it. I do think, however, that there are some eternal theological truths that we ought to remember. Our responses to this pandemic, as a Church and a society, need to be consistent with the eternal plan of salvation revealed by God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

The first and most important point—if there is anything we take away from the deaths, the political turmoil, the economic uncertainty, and the petty arguing that COVID-19 has brought—is that God is in control. God’s sovereignty over life and death, over health and sickness, and over the ultimate end of humankind cannot be denied. Last year we talked ourselves sick about strategies, mitigation, and flattening curves. But we did not and will never have final say over what the virus will do. As such, our first priority must be to serve the Lord, and render Him the praise that is due. We can, and should, take reasonable precautions and adopt sensible measures to prevent the spread and treat the sick. But we must acknowledge that, after a certain point, we are powerless.

If that is the case, then we should follow the advice of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob.” David’s sin was counting material prosperity as evidence of Israel’s success and strength, and not relying upon the Lord. God’s authority, and no act of state, brought an end to the plague. This led David to humble himself before the Lord, and reconsecrate the nation of Israel to God’s sovereign will. There are certainly parallels to our modern, secular societies. The state-sponsored act of worship which David offered to give thanks for the end of the plague would violate the non-establishment clause of the Constitution. Religion is generally relegated to private devotion, something done outside the public sphere as a personal choice. But pandemics do not limit themselves to the private world of conscience. During the biblical plagues, the God-given authority of the state was involved in ending the God-given plague. Our current political structures do not permit this.

Worshiping God according to the wishes of Jesus Christ, in the Church, through the sacraments, and, most important, in the Mass, is the activity for which the Church was founded, and the most practical way in which the Church can help the world. In both of the above-mentioned biblical plagues, the ravages of disease were brought to an end when the worship of God was restored to its proper place. Yet, today, the worship of God commanded by Christ when He said, “Do this in memory of me” is judicially curtailed in parts of the country. The legitimate authority of the bishops is denied even within the Church. Clericalism and abuse have proven that the clergy are but men, and frequently sinful ones. The ensuing anti-clericalism, however, rejects the reality of how Christ has chosen to be present in His Church. God specifically intended the hierarchical priesthood, the authority of bishops whatever their personal worthiness, and the true divine worship of the Mass. If we want God to hear our prayers for help in times of plague, we should pray the way He told us to.

Ultimately, I do not think the coronavirus was a punishment for particular sins on our part. Rather, it is enough to say that God permits evils like this to call attention to particular sins, to allow us to repent. The damage the coronavirus has wrought, the turmoil it has caused politically, and the deaths it has brought are evil. Its impact has spilled beyond our physical health into our societal health—from our public life of churches, education, and businesses facing closures and interruptions, to the very personal horrors of isolation, taxed mental health, and an alarming increase in suicide. Truly we have suffered a great deal. We would do well to take this admonition from the Lord to heart, and repent of any sins that would lead to the greater evil of eternal damnation. More than anything else, we must trust radically in the mercy of Christ. As the Communion antiphon records, “A multitude of the sick and those that were troubled by unclean spirits came to Him: for power went out from Him and healed all.” God truly has the power to cleanse us of all our sins and to heal us all ills. We should entrust ourselves to Him.

Father Ambrose Dobrozsi is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

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Father Ambrose Dobrozsi is a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This piece originally appeared in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp magazine.