Although it might not seem so at first, the Council of Jerusalem—the first council of the Church—brings to mind mandates, particularly vaccine mandates. The letter the Council sends from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to the Gentile communities in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia around A.D. 50 begins, “Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind. . .” (Acts 15:24). A faction of Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentile Christians be circumcised according to the Mosaic practice even though they lacked a mandate from the leaders in Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas mediated the situation by going up to Jerusalem and holding a council there with Peter and the other elders. Returning now with Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas, they accompany the letter conveying the council’s verdict: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond the necessities” (Acts 15:28-29). These necessities were abstention from meat sacrificed to idols, from meat not drained of blood, and from unlawful marriage. “If you keep free of these,” they tell them, “you will be doing what is right.”
Many people have been disturbed by mandates recently. I know of several people who have, but one in particular comes to mind; I will call her “Ana.” Last October, while preaching a retreat, I met her. Ana worked in IT for a federal contractor at a military base. Ana was convinced she should not in conscience receive any of the Covid-19 vaccines because all of them were developed through experimentation on cell lines derived from aborted children.
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Single and providing the sole source of income for both her and her father, Ana’s livelihood was endangered by the Biden administration’s unprecedented use of OSHA to mandate vaccination (since ruled illegal by the Supreme Court). Her request and appeal for a religious exemption had been denied. This was one factor that led Ana to the spiritually-punishing practice of hoarding food and supplies in her small apartment. It was from this malady that Ana sought relief, but it was the mandate that had disturbed her peace of mind.
It may seem that for us today there is not much to learn from the disagreement over Gentile circumcision. But perhaps Covid-19 and vaccine mandates may show us some similarities? Let us try to see.
Why did certain Jewish Christians come down from Judea and insist on this? For them, circumcision implied acceptance of the entire Mosaic Law while rejection implied the opposite. Circumcision was an expression of Jewish Christian identity, as was observance of dietary restrictions. Moreover, such practices were put in place for the sake of common meals and intermarriage with Gentile Christians and ensured harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
For Gentile Christians, however, observance of circumcision would cause social problems with other Gentiles. Hellenization of cities like Antioch meant that bathhouses and the gymnasium, where the men would exercise nude, were important places of gathering; social, political, and commercial activities were carried out there. However, a circumcised male would have looked obscene to the other Gentiles who saw circumcision as mutilation.
In Acts we hear that the elders at the Council at Jerusalem worked out a compromise for the Gentile Christians: refrain from circumcision but follow certain dietary requirements. The leaders of the early Christian movement knew that their nascent communities could not do without table-fellowship and a fortiori without the Eucharist. We should recall that Peter himself denounces the Jewish Christians who insisted on circumcision.
At the council in Jerusalem, Peter puts a pointed rhetorical question to them: “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Perhaps this question can guide us as we consider, once again, Ana’s plight.
For many Catholics, indeed the majority, the decision to take the vaccine was an easy one. “If it can protect me and my family,” they reasoned, “I will willingly do it.” For some, however, the highly-charged political environment and the incomplete, unreliable, and purposely misstated scientific data on both the mRNA vaccines and on the progress of the virus itself made it especially difficult. Balancing the dictates of conscience against what seemed to be the requirements of the common good was a great challenge.
It is not my purpose here to inform about the ethical dilemmas that the virus, the vaccine, and the mandate-makers have generated both in and for the Church. But for someone with Ana’s conscience, someone deeply committed to prenatal justice, the issue caused no little distress. For Ana, and those like her, even though Catholic bioethicists and Catholic leaders had encouraged getting the vaccine (a certain baptized Catholic in the White House even went so far as to insist that it was one’s patriotic duty), she could not cooperate with what was an intrinsic evil, even remotely. For Ana, the enemy opposed and tempted her. The question that Peter put to the mandate-makers became her own: Why, then, are you now putting God to the test? This question echoes the words Jesus spoke to Satan in the wilderness.
As we know, Satan tempted Him three times. The last time, taking Jesus to Jerusalem and placing Him on the pinnacle of the Temple, he said to Him “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours. . .throw yourself down from here” (Luke 4:6-9). Jesus refuses, rebuking him: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12).
Jesus continues, saying that God will command His angels to protect Him; they will bear Him up. As the Father sent His angels to Jesus, in turn, Jesus promises that in His name the Father will send the Holy Spirit, the advocate, to the ones who keep His word. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).
Might these consoling words in the Gospel of John have been meant for Ana and those like her who kept their conscience and tended to prenatal justice during the pandemic? The ones who relied on the Advocate to teach everything, to bring back to our mind what Jesus had said. These words can remind us of another book, written by a man name John as well.
John, the writer of the book of Revelation, was banished for refusing to worship Caesar. He spent his life on the island of Patmos, writing letters of encouragement to the Christian believers throughout the empire. John was an exile. Many of us have felt exiled in the time of pandemic. Friendships have been tested; some have been broken. Churches were closed, loved ones were shut away from family, the dead were left without proper mourning.
But perhaps some who have kept their conscience have received a vision of a holy city, a New Jerusalem gleaming with the splendor of God, a city whose radiance is like that of precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. A vision like the exile of Patmos tells us he sees. He sees Jerusalem, the city that had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. He reports that the Temple, the same one from which Jesus had been tempted by Satan, has vanished: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22), and neither does he see the tester, the tempter, anymore.
He sees only the Lamb; the Lamb who fastens His garment, bends down low, takes a basin filled with water, and shows us how to love (John 13:1-17). The Lamb who says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).
And so, from Ana and all whose conscience resisted tempters during the time of pandemic, may we learn. May they, and the Holy Spirit, teach us all things. May we regather ourselves around the table of the Lord and resolve never to let vaccination status stand in the way of fellowship, communion, and the Lamb. We need to do this now. It is necessary. For “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
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