The word quarantine is defined as a strict isolation imposed to prevent the spread of disease. During the Black death of the 1300s, ships entering port were marked with a special yellow and black flag and kept in isolation before their cargo and passengers would be allowed ashore.
Throughout history, many people suspected of having yellow fever, diphtheria, small pox and cholera were kept quarantined. More recently, those with SARS, bird flu and swine flu have had to endure forced isolation.
The duration of the quarantine depended on the type of illness. The imposition of a 9-day quarantine helped bring an end to the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed more people than World War I. We all learned from the recent outbreak that individuals who were potentially infected with the Ebola virus should be monitored for 21 days.
During Lent’s 40 days, we too are under quarantine. We are under self-observation for an illness that ravages our spiritual well-being and may result in spiritual death.
Lent’s duration of 40 days reflects other times of trial, testing and hardship that are found in the Scriptures:
- The story of Noah tells of rain falling on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days before beginning their missions.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt.
- It took the spies 40 days to search out the promised land and bring back fruit.
- Goliath taunted the Israelite army in the morning and evening for 40 days.
- Jonah warned the Ninevites they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry.
In Church history, penitents—usually guilty of public scandals like murder or adultery—were temporarily expelled for the entire season of Lent in imitation of God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve. They were sent away with the admonition “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They lived isolated from families, friends and parishioners for 40 days.
This temporary separation is what gave us the word quarantine, whose root is Latin for the number 40 and can still be heard in the Spanish word for 40—cuarenta, and Lent—cuaresma. So, for the duration of Lent, we are all, so to speak, in quarantine.
Our disease sets us against God’s love and turns our hearts away from him. Our disease is sin which manifests itself in various ways. St. Paul gives this list:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”—Galatians 5:19-21
The Catechism presents these categories for sin:
“Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1853
All sins must be evaluated according to their gravity. In the Hebrew Scriptures, some sins merited death while others could be expiated through offerings. Consequently, we have venial and mortal sins.
Venial sins do not separate us from God and allow charity to subsist.
Mortal sin, however:
“…destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1855
Mortal sin is so called because it causes the death of the soul (separation from God). The soul looses the state of grace it had and, if unrepented, results in eternal damnation.
According to the Catechism (1857), three conditions must be met for a sin to be mortal. It must be:
1. a serious matter
2. committed with full awareness of its gravity
3. freely committed
Lent is a season of reflection and penance to prepare ourselves to better celebrate the Paschal Mystery. The Scripture passages read during the season underscore our duty to resist temptation and the necessity of contrition, repentance and conversion if we fall. God’s divine mercy is a central Lenten theme which is highlighted in Reconciliation.
The cure for sin is repentance and Sacramental Confession. It restores baptismal grace and reconciles us with God and his Church.
“Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.”—St. Isidore of Seville
“Confession is an act of honesty and courage – an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.”—Pope John Paul 2