15 April 2020, The Tablet

How the sick became precious

Coronavirus pandemic

How the sick became precious

Rembrandt’s ‘Christ Healing the Sick’ c. 1649
CNS/courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


The Roman empire created the perfect conditions for the first recorded pandemic. It also created the conditions for a radical Christian revolution of love

At the end of days, seven angels will pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the Earth – and the first of these will be a plague of sores. So it was written in the book of Revelation. The echo was of the sixth plague to strike the Egyptians back in the days of the Exodus, when Moses had been ordered by God to toss handfuls of soot from a furnace into the air, and they had become a fine dust over Egypt, and festering boils had broken out on men and animals across the entire land.

Yet as well as the similarities between the two plagues, there was a telling difference. The sickness that struck the Egyptians – like the one that struck the Philistines after their capture of the Ark of the Covenant, or the Assyrians as they lay camped before the walls of Jerusalem – was not universal. That seen by St John in his vision of the Apocalypse was. He wrote as someone who could imagine all the cities of the world shaken by one single calamity, and collapsing before it. In this, in his capacity to think on a global scale, he was recognisably a man of his age: a man who lived as a subject of the empire of Rome.

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