Self-isolation in our deserts of Lent


With the first cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed in New Zealand, authorities are responding in various ways. Among the tools being used are prevention of entry from some nations, being required to self-register if having returned from certain other nations as well as going into self-isolation for 14 days to help prevent the spread of the virus.

The “self-isolation guidance” issued by the Ministry of Health makes many recommendations about how to protect people from the spread of this disease and others. There is one section labelled “taking care of your well-being”.

It states that it is normal to feel stressed and lonely when self-isolating. But there are steps that can be done to help — such as reaching out to friends and family, talking about how one feels and sticking to a regular routine in terms of meals, sleep and exercise. Trained counsellors are available by phone to offer support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental well-being.

This is all happening in the season of Lent. The 40 days of Lent recall the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert in a type of self-isolation, except that he had been led there by the Holy Spirit after his baptism in the River Jordan.

Benedict XVI, in a 2013 general audience, said that the desert is many things. On the negative side, it can be a place of death, because there is little water. It is a place of silence and poverty, a place of solitude where “man feels temptation more acutely”. But it is also a place where the human person is driven to the “essential” and “for this very reason can more easily encounter God”.

In his Ash Wednesday homily in 2010, Benedict said that, for Jesus, “that long period of silence and fasting” in the desert “was a complete abandonment of himself to the Father and to his plan of love. The time was a ‘baptism’ in itself, that is, an ‘immersion’ in God’s will and, in this sense, a foretaste of the Passion and of the Cross”.

Jesus’ 40 days in the desert demonstrated “the dramatic reality of the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, who had stripped himself of the form of God (see Phil 2: 6-7) . . . “, Benedict said in an Angelus address in 2006.

“He who never sinned and cannot sin submits to being tested and can therefore sympathise with our weaknesses (see Hebrews 4:15). He lets himself be tempted by Satan, the enemy, who has been opposed to God’s saving plan for humankind from the outset,” Benedict said.

“What is the essence of the three temptations to which Jesus is subjected?” Benedict asked in a 2012 Ash Wednesday audience.

“It is the proposal to exploit God, to use him for one’s own interests, for one’s own glory and for one’s own success. And therefore, essentially, to put oneself in God’s place, removing him from one’s own existence and making him seem superfluous. Each one of us must therefore ask him- or herself: what place does God have in my life? Is he the Lord or am I?”

And it is only by looking at the figure of Jesus dead on the cross, Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2012), that a fundamental truth can be known and contemplated: “God is love” (I John 4: 8,16).

“In this contemplation, the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move” (no. 12).

But at the same time as we look at the crucified Christ, we feel looked at by the Risen Christ, Benedict noted elsewhere. “He whom we have pierced with our faults never tires of pouring out upon the world an inexhaustible torrent of merciful love.”

Returning to the 2010 homily, Benedict wrote that salvation is . . . a gift; “it is the grace of God, but in order for it to make an impact on my life, it requires my assent, an acceptance that is demonstrated in my actions — in other words, the will to live like Jesus, to follow him”.

It is to be hoped that those who follow Jesus in 2020 in New Zealand act sensibly with regard to COVID-19, love their sick neighbour if it comes to that, offer prayers for those who are ill and for those working to find a cure and generally be good citizens at this time and always.

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Michael Otto

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