This week we will be considering how plague and pestilence can be interpreted in the light of faith. Outbreaks of disease used to be seen as a sign of God’s wrath. Sometimes they still are.

But these days you’ve got to be either brave or foolish to declare disease as divine judgment. It’s not even clear that the Bible writers ever did say that God uses plague as a judgment. And even if they did, what right do we have to say who and what is being judged? It’s hardly surprising that what’s being judged is usually about other people.

Then there’s the question of how a loving creator can make a virus like Covid-19. Much ink has been spilt down the centuries on the question of how a good God can let loose an ‘evil’ pestilence, and we still haven’t worked it out.

Attitudes have changed over time. This article by Brett Gray compares two official Church of England prayers in a time of pandemic – one from 1662, which now looks distinctly dated, and another from 2020. The first calls for lamentation and repentance; the second for comfort. Which do you prefer?

As Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh tell us, there is no clear answer to why God allows suffering – the question of ‘theodicy’. But there is another way of looking at disease, which is just as old, has not dated, and on which Christians can agree: that sickness can be an occasion for God’s mercy to break through.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, pictured below, was painted in the early C16 by Matthias Grunewald, and hung in the ward of a hospital for patients dying of ergotism. Grunewald depicted a crucified Christ taking the disease upon himself. The painting is a sign of faith in Christ, that ‘by his wounds we are healed’ – whether here on Earth or in eternity.

In most cases of crucifixion, it was respiratory failure which brought on death. What would be the equivalent image for this pandemic?

Preparatory reading and reflection

Before we meet, read Revelation 15.1-8, and also Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi meditation on Coronavirus, this article from Tearfund by Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh, and Brett Gray’s comparison of two prayers.

Opening liturgy

Together with all in Christ, we wait
Come Holy Spirit; soak into our deepest being
We reflect together with all your people
Come Holy Spirit; breeze through our staleness
We will hear the scriptures together
Come Holy Spirit; fire up our imaginations for good

There follows a moment of quiet. Then we will listen to this passage being read.

Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues… And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed. (Revelation 15. 6, 8)

Questions for exploration

Take a minute each introduce yourselves and how you are, and agree a volunteer to summarise your group’s conclusions.

  • How do you feel about the risk of contracting Covid-19? Are the measures being taken in society proportionate, or is the treatment worse than the disease?
  • Pope Francis says this ‘is not the time of [God’s] judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not’. Do you agree, and what is up for judgment?
  • Remember the comparison between the two prayers, from this year and from 1662. Which did you prefer? Is this pandemic a call to repentance, as plagues were considered to be in centuries past? If so, what for, and how should that repentance be expressed?
  • Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh say that in this pandemic ‘Having the right theology can save lives’. Do you see God at work in the pandemic in any way? Is there a single ‘right’ theology? And are there any wrong ones? Don’t feel you have to agree on an answer!

Closing liturgy

Click here for a liturgy to close this session.