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The Meaning of Quarantine

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus. Many older Catholics may remember that this feast was usually celebrated on a Thursday. The change from Thursday to Sunday came a few years back when the bishops wanted to make the celebration more accessible to the faithful. The move from Thursday to Sunday may not be on the thoughts of many people these days but I find it important to recall why the feast was originally on Thursday.

Ascension Thursday is exactly 40 days after Easter which is itself preceded by a 40-day period of Lent. Here is why that is important given our recent experience as a society.

We all know that we have been living under a stay-at-home order for the last several weeks. Sometimes people slip and say that we’ve been under “quarantine.” According to Miriam dictionary, the first definition offered for “quarantine” is “a period of 40 days” (from the Latin route for “four” and/or “forty”) The word was co opted by the medical profession when doctors ordered that anyone with severe sickness needed to spend 40 days in isolation. Over time, the use of the word for medical purposes became dominant and we generally forgot that the literal meaning of “quarantine” is 40 days.

The next question a religious educator such as myself asks whenever a number like “40” pops up within cult or culture is “What else in the Christian tradition has the number 40 attached to it?” Answers should quickly populate our memory. There are 40 days and nights of rain in the great flood of Noah’s Ark (which was also followed by 40 days of sailing before Noah and the animals got off the boat). That is reechoed by the Israelites spending 40 years wandering in the desert before arriving in the promise land. And important to Christians especially, we hear the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the dessert before starting his own ministry. Finally, there are the 40 days of Easter leading to Ascension Thursday.

It is gratifying for me when people can recall the details of Biblical history, but it is thrilling to me when someone can tell me what it means. I often spend time in our religious education programs demonstrating that the signs in our faith tradition are not arbitrary. We didn’t just gravitate toward numbers like “twelve” just because there were in fact 12 tribes of Israel or because there were 12 Apostles. The number twelve has cosmic meaning. Recall that the moon (generally) has twelve full cycles in a single year. Twelve means that everything is coming together as a unified whole.

The same is true of the number 40. It wasn’t just picked randomly. The number 40 was significant because it is the number of weeks (generally) that a child develops in the womb.  Knowing this, it is easier to see the meaning ascribed to 40 in the stories of the Bible. The 40 days of rain in the story of Noah and the Ark represent a rebirth of the people of God, especially as they hold onto everything that is dear and good to them (their kin and the animals of the Earth). The 40 years of wandering in the desert is the time in which the people of Israel came to know their relationship with God through the commandments and ultimately birthed their identity as a people. The 40 days of walking with Jesus after his Resurrection incubated Apostle’s insight that Jesus was not just a participant in the things of Earth, but his very being belongs to the heavens as well. These are all stories and experiences of… quarantine. They are stories of rebirth and formation, the discovery of something new. And what about now? What about our most recent quarantine?

As there is budding enthusiasm toward opening up churches and restaurants and parks, the religious insight we can harvest from our own quarantine is to ask “What did I discover during the stay-at-home order that leads me to into new life?” The question remaining is, “How will that new life change me going forward?” Like the Apostles looking up to heaven and realizing that Jesus was Lord of Heaven and Earth, may the changes that come from our prescribed quarantine these last few weeks bring us to newness of life.

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