The word has surged into our everyday parlance. What are its origins? And what can we learn from those origins about our use of the word today?
“Quarantine” is from the Italian “quadrants giorni” and means, literally, “space of forty days.”
The number 40 and spaces of forty days hold depths of meaning in many religious traditions. For example, Scripture tells us that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Judean desert. The Christian liturgical season of Lent encourages 40 days of reflection leading up to Easter. The New Testament book of Acts marks a period of 40 days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
My wondering for today is this: perhaps “quarantine” in these COVID-19 crisis days, as worrisome and even frightening as the reality is for so many of us, can hold unanticipated (if unsought) spiritual meanings and awakenings.
One reality has become clear. We have entered into a time of unwanted sabbath from our usual way of doing things, and that is causing anxiety, uncertainty, and even danger for some people in our communities. Also, unlike the liturgical season of Lent, we don’t know when this particular 40 days will end.
Some Jewish scholars say that the biblical concept of “40 days and 40 nights” actually means “a really long time.” Uncertainties like those we are facing today can make each day seem like “a really long time.”
I dare not suggest what spiritual meanings “quarantine” may hold for any person or community. What I seek for myself is a mustard seed of wisdom for life and faith that might take root during this imposed Sabbath “space of 40 days.”
In the meanwhile, my prayer is that we seek ways to be present for each other even in the midst of isolation, and my hope is rooted in the wonders of a Gospel story that promises resurrection and new life when the sun sets not only on the last of the 40 days but on each and every day in between.
Of course, even as I write these words, I feel in the marrow of my liturgical theologian’s bones an acute awareness that the end of quarantine will not, even must not, mean “getting back to normal.” Just as the Christian resurrection story meant nothing about humanity or even creation was ever again the same, so, too, with this historic moment. We cannot get back to normal because normal was not and is not life-giving or hope-sustaining for so many people.
We need transformation.
We need resurrection.
I pray that it may be so.