When our son and daughter-in-law go to the hospital next week for the birth of their second child, we are not allowed in. Only our son, the dad, can enter. Once he leaves, he can’t return.
What to do with big brother, age two-plus, stuck at home? Grandma and grandpa have their overnight bags packed. If the hospital trip is rushed, we will meet in the ER parking lot. When will we see our new grandson? Hard to say. Until then, our loving gaze will be on FaceTime and Zoom.
All of this, I suppose, is a small price to pay for keeping a safe distance in our dangerous world. Our forebears endured this and more. In Martin Luther’s day, the scourge of the Black Plague had already visited Europe multiple times. Over the years perhaps thirty to sixty percent of the population perished. At the time in Wittenberg, Luther’s wife Katherine was pregnant with their second child, Elizabeth, who though sickly survived the birth. Sadly, the baby died eight months later. Hans, their son, was infected but survived. The Luther family took in some people from Wittenberg.
Luther was asked by the clergy in Breslau to give spiritual counsel on whether it was godly to flee from or stay with others. Re-reading now what he said back in 1527, I interpret his words thus: it depends. For Luther social distancing involved both practical and scriptural questions. In terms of responsibility, what is your station in life? Do you respect doctors and medicine? Is your faith strong or in its infancy, as spoken of by St. Paul? (If the latter, you may leave without blame.) Can anyone else do the work? Is the Great Commandment, love of God and love of neighbor, your supreme guide?
My takeaway: avoid extremes, counseled Luther. Neither false bravado nor cringing fear, which he called “the devil’s game,” comport with faith and trust in the holy angels’ providential care. “But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday.” (The Annotated Luther, Volume 4, Fortress Press, 2016, p. 404) Trusting God means being neither rash nor deserting one another.
Luther helps, or at least steadies, us as grandparents in our decision making, but his words give us no earthly certainty. We are, after all, in that vulnerable age bracket. Still, because we have determined that it is unlikely that anyone can care for our older grandson, our decision, with its very real risks, is easier to make.
We do have a small supply of face masks. And we do trust that all of us “are surrounded as by thousands of angels [and our doctors] who watch over you.” (The Annotated Luther Volume 4, Fortress Press, 2016, p.401)
*The aftermath: our new grandson was born safely at about 4:00 AM on Holy Thursday morning. We adore from a safe distance, remembering the gospel of the day to “Love one another as I have loved you.” His big brother is well and giving advice to his parents.