The year—1342. The port of Genoa, Italy—a trading ship put into the harbor and dumped six bodies of dead crew members overboard. The cargo was offloaded and the crew went to their waiting families ashore. Then they began to die. Also, so did wives and children.
Quickly, the epidemic spread across Europe. The contagion slew everyone in a monastery, half the citizens of some cities. So many dead bodies piled up there were not enough burial details.
Over the next few years half the population perished between India and Iceland.
The plague began with multiple symptoms: vomiting, headaches, and swollen circular skin sores. Death came swiftly. The plague was so virulent a person could go to bed healthy, sicken in sleep, and die before waking in the morning.
Doctors at the time blamed Jews for poisoning the wells. Others thought it came from someone giving people the evil eye. Still others thought it came from bad air. The church called it the fourth person of the Apocalypse from the book of Revelation—the judgment of God on a sinful people.
It would take until 1900 for doctors to understand the disease was carried on fleas from rats on the ships. One bite was all it took.
It was the monks of Christian monasteries who abated the plague. Using the Bible’s book of Leviticus as a guide the monks urged towns to clean up raw sewage, quickly bury the dead, and quarantine the sick. Slowly the rats retreated, taking the fleas and the plague with them.
Over the centuries there have been dozens of such scourges. Between 1492 and 1800 smallpox slew 90% of American Indians. The 1918 Spanish flu killed 50 million men and women globally.
But the news is not all negative. In the early 1600s while Shakespeare’s Globe Theater was closed due to a plague, the Bard went home and wrote King Lear. Isaac Newton was home from Cambridge University, closed due to a plague, and he formulated his theories on gravity. Even the Black Death of 1842 is credited with the birth of the Middle Class. So many poor workers had died, those remaining could demand a better wage. To read about the plague of 1342, try historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.
So now we find ourselves in the midst of another harsh plague in 2020. This is a first for many of us. We are angered by a quarantine, we want to blame our politicians, we are afraid, and we raid the stores to stockpile, of all things, toilet paper. Churches cancel services, cafes are empty, if we do not work we lose our pay, sporting events get cancelled; we get bored, more angry, more fearful.
We need to sit back and take a deep breath. We are not the first, God is in control, we can get through this. The Christian church, as in the past, can help. And a scared world needs a fearless church.
We must renounce hysteria, selfishness, price gouging, and such, all the while finding ways to love our neighbor — sharing, hopefulness, generosity, and the like. As Philippians 2:4 explains, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
NBA star Zion Williamson, 19 years old, has shown the way by paying the Pelicans’ stadium staffers for a month while they are out of work. We can do such deeds of mercy in our own villages as our purses allow.
But mostly, let us pray…..that God will show us mercy, for medical personnel who heal, for our leaders who decide, for scientists who research a cure, for people to learn how to love in a crisis, for a spirit of generosity, that we will learn the lessons of life, for humility and repentance, for nations united in humanity one to another, that we can mature through all of this.
Until then, “Wash your hands, ye sinners!” (James 4:8).