“And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
—John 12:32

Is Jesus Christ an opponent of social-distancing?

The Gospel text at the head of this article might lead you to think so. But no, we can be certain that Our Lord supports us in our effort to follow the direction given by our government leaders and the best advice of the medical community. Catholics can and should support appropriate social distancing during this COVID-19 crisis.

Yet Catholics are uniquely prepared to understand both the deep suffering brought by such social distance and the unique antidote to its poison. That antidote is the Cross of Jesus Christ.

These issues are all the more acute right now, when the clergy and faithful in many places are learning that the most solemn liturgies of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum cannot be celebrated publicly this year. Necessary as such a suspension undoubtedly is, it still adds greatly to the pain of isolation already felt by countless people.

Why does social distancing bring such profound suffering? Because it strikes at the very root and purpose of our human nature. We have been designed, empowered and called by God to live in communion with Him and with one another. Communion is deep spiritual union, and shares the same root as words like “community” and “communal.”

“Religion” is another word with the same meaning. It comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind.” Our religion is entirely about becoming bound to God in Christ. And it is about being bound to one another as members of Christ’s Body, the Church. The meaning of the Eucharist, given to the faithful as holy Communion, is precisely this unity with Christ and with each other.

Why does social distancing bring such profound suffering? Because it strikes at the very root and purpose of our human nature. We have been designed, empowered and called by God to live in communion with Him and with one another. Communion is deep spiritual union, and shares the same root as words like “community” and “communal.”

All of this corresponds to the deepest part of our human nature. We are social creatures, called to be together. As He surveys all of His good creation, the first thing God says is “not good” is “for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We need each other, and when that need is not satisfied, we will feel the pain of that deprivation.

These truths are borne out by contemporary science and the social sciences. The effect of either strong social relationships or loneliness can be empirically demonstrated in our neurochemistry, for example. And psychologists and sociologists have long had compelling data to support the truth that one of the leading contributors to human flourishing or to mental illness is found in the presence or absence of familial bonds, friendships and community ties. 

Catholics know “in their bones” that we are bound together, and that the weakening of our relational bonds weakens us as individuals. Truly, no man is an island.

How is it, then, that Catholics are uniquely prepared to identify the antidote to the poison of isolation? And how can the antidote be something as seemingly anti-social as an instrument of torture and death?

Going back to the Gospel text with which this article began, a related question emerges: 

What can Jesus mean by saying that when He is raised up on the Cross He “will draw everyone” to Himself, when it seems so obvious that not everyone has drawn close to Him? When many appear even to spend their lives running away from Him?

To answer these questions, we need to think a little bit about God’s grace. Unfortunately, we often hear Catholics talk about “karma” these days, but not so often about grace. Karma has become kind of a trendy concept, but it is really an unfortunate substitution in our vocabulary. Karma has absolutely no power to save us, and grace is something we absolutely cannot do without if we want to be saved, to avoid hell and go to heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grace in the following way:

1996. Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. 

1997. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an "adopted son" he can henceforth call God "Father," in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. 

1998. This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God's gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.

1999. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification

Grace is not “karma.” It is not “the Force” from Star Wars, and it is not just a feeling. Grace is the gift of God’s life, freely given, so that we might become holy as He is holy and live with Him forever.  

We need to see that when Jesus is “lifted up” on the Cross and dies for us, there is what we might call a supernova of grace, grace radiating throughout the whole world for our salvation. And when we think about what the crucifixion of Jesus really is — the Son of God choosing to die for us out of love — how could the effects of such an act not be that dramatic, that powerful, that explosive?

Still, we have the problem of those who do not seem to be drawn to Jesus by this explosion of God’s grace in the world. Here I think there are at least three ways we can understand what Jesus’ meaning is when He says that He “will draw everyone” to Himself:

First, I think one legitimate way we can read this Scripture text is to say that Jesus draws all the peoples of the world to Himself in His death on the Cross. Christmas seems like it was a thousand years ago now, but it was really just three months ago. At Christmas, we see this theme developed even at the very beginning of Jesus’ life. The announcement of the angels of “peace to people of good will,” the visit of the Magi from the East, and the prophesy of Simeon that the Christ Child would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles,” all speak to Jesus’ universal mission of salvation.  

We need to see that when Jesus is “lifted up” on the Cross and dies for us, there is what we might call a supernova of grace, grace radiating throughout the whole world for our salvation. And when we think about what the crucifixion of Jesus really is — the Son of God choosing to die for us out of love — how could the effects of such an act not be that dramatic, that powerful, that explosive?

The universality of Jesus’ lordship and mission becomes clearer throughout the New Testament. And in fact the Gospel has spread to all the nations of the world. There are people everywhere who by God’s grace have been drawn to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. One of the most remarkable things about the Catholic Church is that you can go anywhere in the world and find people who share the same faith, who worship at Mass every Sunday, and receive the same Bread of Life with the same hope for heaven, no matter how different the circumstances of their lives might be from ours.

Second, we need to make a distinction between two ways of using the verb “to draw.” Jesus speaks of drawing all people to Himself, and I asked earlier why it is the case that “not everyone has drawn close to Him.”  

So there is, on the one hand, Jesus offering the gift of grace to all, drawing all people to Himself, and, on the other hand, the element of human free will. To use another Star Wars analogy, grace does not work like a “tractor-beam,” which gets you into its grip so that there is no escape from being pulled toward whoever is trying to catch you. No, grace is a freely given gift that needs to be freely accepted. As Jesus draws us, we must draw near to Him.

Third, we need to remember that we don’t know how the lives of other people end. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, in a quote featured in the novel Brideshead Revisited, about the way in which the Lord can draw people to Himself even when it seems that for most of their lives they have run away from Him: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” 

There is a deep mystery about the way God engages each individual person. We do not know what kind of drama might unfold in the last moments of any person’s life, what final gift of grace God might pour into his or her soul, what last chance there might be before death to share in the death of Jesus.

Jesus does draw us to Himself. He is not indifferently waiting for us to come to Him. But Jesus does not force us to come to Him. He wants our love, not just our capture. 

Life’s greatest tragedy is not the coronavirus. It is not a natural disaster, a broken heart, or even an act of violence. Life’s greatest tragedy is to say “no” to the greatest gift, the greatest invitation, the greatest friendship we could ever hope to receive.

In the Holy Eucharist, Jesus is “lifted up” on the altar of sacrifice. In the Mass, all the power of Christ’s dying and rising for us is represented to His people. In offering Himself once again, for us and with us, Christ does all that He can, short of forcing us, to draw us to Himself.

Especially in this strange, difficult springtime, when nature speaks of new life but we are easily preoccupied with death and pain, we need to turn to Christ once again. Catholics need to renew their confidence in the Cross of Christ, by which the entire cosmos is redeemed. We need to live and proclaim the truth that no matter what the circumstances of our lives, Christ is the Victor over sin and death. He does draw us to Himself!

God has bound Himself to us in Christ Jesus, and we do not ever need to be separated from Him again. And bound to Him, we are bound to each other, more deeply and intimately than when we are in the same room together. No physical proximity can match the spiritual bonds of our communion in Christ. 

This is the Good News — extremely, unfathomably good — we need to hear and which we offer to a world that is in desperate need of good news. God has come to us. God has saved us. God is one of us. God will never leave us. God loves each of us and all of us, now and forever.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.