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A Christian Response to a Pandemic

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In 1347, according to Charles L. Mee, Jr., it’s likely that “a flea riding on the hide of a black rat entered the Italian port of Messina.… The flea had a gut full of the bacillus Yersinia pestis.”

The bacillus brought the Black Death, or what they then called “The Great Dying,” one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It resulted in the deaths of up to 200 million in Eurasia within just three years. The toll was greater than any epidemic or war in human history.

For people who caught the disease, death came quickly. First, those who were infected showed signs of fever, delirium, speech disorders, and loss of consciousness. Then they would break out in large boils. Even healthy individuals could die within days. The odds of survival were low.

Both rich and poor were affected, but congested and unsanitary areas, populated by the poor, were hardest hit. The dead sometimes outnumbered the living; ordinary activities ceased. People barred themselves in houses or fled to the country. Many parish priests who cared for the sick fell ill themselves and died. Fearing death, few risked visiting the sick.

The plague gradually subsided, but would occasionally recur, at a smaller scale, until medical knowledge improved.

Zwingli and the Plague

Ulrich Zwingli was on vacation in August 1519 when the plague reached Zurich, the city where he pastored. It would end up claiming a third of the population.

Everyone who could leave the city fled for their lives. Rather than stay in Pfäfers, safe from the disease, Zwingli returned to Zurich to care for the ill. Friends warned him to observe the quarantine protocol and guard his own health, but Zwingli ignored them. He administered medicine, prayed, and comforted the sick without protection.

In September, Zwingli caught the disease, and it looked like he too would die. He lay bedridden for weeks. He asked for someone to bring him a quill, ink, and parchment, and began to compose some prayers in the form of poems.

When the plague first hit, he wrote:

Help me, O Lord,
My strength and rock;
Lo, at the door
I hear death’s knock.

Uplift thine arm,
Once pierced for me,
That conquered death.
And set me free.

Yet, if thy voice,
In life’s midday.
Recalls my soul,
Then I obey.

In faith and hope
Earth I resign.
Secure of heaven.
For I am Thine.

As Zwingli’s condition worsened, he wrote:

My pains increase;
Haste to console;
For fear and woe
Seize body and soul.

Death is at hand.
My senses fail.
My tongue is dumb;
Now, Christ, prevail.

Lo! Satan strains
To snatch his prey;
I feel his grasp;
Must I give way?

He harms me not,
I fear no loss,
For here I lie
Beneath thy cross.

Slowly, Zwingli began to recover, and by November was more or less healed. He believed that God has saved him so he could continue to serve. He wrote:

My God! My Lord!
Healed by the hand.
Upon the earth
Once more I stand.

Let sin no more
Rule over me;
My mouth shall sing
Alone to thee.

Though now delayed,
My hour will come.
Involved, perchance.
In deeper gloom.

But, let it come;
With joy I’ll rise,
And bear my yoke
Straight to the skies.

I Fear No Loss

“I fear no loss,” Zwingli wrote.

I don’t know exactly how to respond when a pandemic hits. But I know three things.

First: we are not the first to experience this kind of thing. We can dig deep into church history and learn from how Christians have responded to pandemics before us.

Second: we have an opportunity to serve. While others run from danger, God may be calling some of us to risk and to serve.

Finally: we need not fear death. There are worse things than dying. If Zwingli could face death with confidence, perhaps if our turn comes, we can too.

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