It is said in a wonderful little book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy, that when Abraham Lincoln was gripped by bouts of melancholy, perhaps even depression, that he would muse on the following adage: “And this, too, shall pass away.” In an address he gave in 1859, before he was elected President, he praised the value of this little phrase in times of suffering:
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.'”
While we are in the midst of the “social distancing” from the coronavirus, when our parish family is mourning the loss of two family members within the past week, when we cannot go to church and have little to do, we can also be consoled by the phrase, “this, too, shall pass away.”
In the reading from Genesis today (8:4-21), we read of someone who was probably very ready for his current circumstances to pass: Noah. The Flood had already lasted one hundred and fifty days, and only then did the waters begin to subside (7:24). Then he and his family had to wait another three months before they even saw the tops of the mountains (8:5). A few months later, they finally were able to park the ark and walk on dry ground (8:13-14).
Most Americans don’t live on farms, so we can only imagine how unpleasant the ark must have smelled after all those months. And if we’re frustrated by family members after only a week or so of being stuck at home together, Noah and his family were stuck in the ark together for months! We can certainly see how such a phrase as “this, too, shall pass away” might have been very encouraging to Noah and his family.
But even more importantly, when the Flood did “pass away,” as Genesis records,
“Then Noah built an altar to God, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered whole burnt offerings on the altar. So the Lord God smelled a sweet aroma” (8:20-21a).
That is, when the long months on the Ark finally ended, the first thing Noah did was to thank God for preserving his life and the lives of his family members. Having trusted in God to preserve him, he offered a sacrifice of thanks to God, the protector of his life.
So we, too, are being preserved in the True Ark, which is the Church. Never before in history have people suffering from a pandemic had so many concurrent blessings: food, shelter, the internet to live-stream services, hand sanitizer (if we can find it), modern medicine, basic hygiene, etc.
When this coronavirus finally does “pass away,” as the Flood eventually did, the first thing we ought to do is to thank God for preserving us even in the midst of widespread suffering. For those of us who live, we can pray for those who have died from the virus, and for their mourning families.
And even now, in the midst of the crisis, we can be thankful for all the good things that God has given us. Until the pandemic has run its course, we can be comforted by the thought that “this, too, shall pass away,” and even more by the knowledge that eventually, disease and death will be destroyed: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).