A Message from Dean Thomason
The Meaning of "Forty Days"
Dear friends,
By my calculations, this Friday, May 1st, will mark forty days since Governor Inslee decreed the stay-at-home order that stopped us on a dime—a quarantine for the common good. I am heartened by the prevailing sense of mutuality that has led us all to embrace this constraint on our freedom, for the good of the whole, even if at times it has been bewildering, scary, or frustrating. 

The New Yorker published an essay earlier this month tracing the historic threads of various pandemics and how they changed the face of civilization in ways both devastating and transformational. Crucible moments are like that—they bring good and bad. We are seeing this inexorable reality play out once more, even as we remain uncertain about so many details. When will we reopen? How will the virus behave as warmer weather comes? What will happen with our economy? Why is a vaccine so difficult to develop? The questions linger with lots of folks opining, but no clear-cut answers just yet. We are being asked to be patient still. And that is difficult.

The word quarantine comes from the Latin meaning “forty.” Drawing on the biblically important number of forty—forty years for Israelites to roam in the wilderness, forty days from the birth of Jesus to his Presentation in the temple, forty days for Jesus to wrestle with his spiritual demons in the desert. As is the case with much of scripture, the number forty may not be meant to be taken literally; it simply conveys the sense of “a long time…” or the fullness of time for the work at hand to be accomplished. 
By the fourteenth century, with the bubonic plague sweeping across Europe, the practice of quarantine became codified—an area struck with illness would be closed and cutoff for forty days. That number was chosen for its biblical import, not from any scientific knowledge of a certain bacterium wreaking lethal havoc. But scientific observation was involved because there was clear benefit and sparing of life for those communities who quarantined. In that case, forty days was usually sufficient time for the bubonic curve to be flattened.

The term quarantine found its way into our lexicon, and so we speak of quarantine today, even if we don’t mean exactly forty days. Let’s be clear: we don’t mean exactly forty days. We mean, in the biblical sense, the length of time necessary for the work at hand to be accomplished, which is to break the cycle of disease spread, for the common good. We will reopen in the fullness of time, a metaphorical forty days. And so we wait still, and the invitation is still one of practicing patience.
A century ago, Seattle’s Mayor Ole Hansen closed down the city in the fall and winter of 1918 as the so-called Spanish Flu came roaring back, presumably because our nation did not sufficiently impede the spread of the virus earlier that year. Here’s a photo of a page in the Saint Mark’s Parish Burial Register from that time:
( Click the image to enlarge.)

Note in the fifth column that the cause of death for many is noted as influenza or pneumonia. These were people who lived down the street, sat in the fourth pew on the left every Sunday, served in altar guild, worked at your favorite restaurant…

We have a century of modern medicine and public health advances under our belt since that pandemic swept across the globe, and I am grateful for the care our health professionals are providing today. I share the somber story of 1918, and this sobering photo of our Burial Register, not to scare anyone, but because the historical lesson is instructive for us today, and because we are committed to seeing this through—again, for the common good.
We have decisions ahead of us, and we won’t have all the information at our disposal to be certain they will be correct ones. Timing the reopening of the cathedral, gathering in fellowship, exchanging the Peace, sharing communion, baptizing little ones. We all long for these incarnate ways of being community… and yet… we do not want Saint Mark’s Cathedral to be complicit in a new spike of COVID-19 cases. 

I’ve conferred with vestry and staff leaders about all this, and we are of one mind— we prefer to be cautious, for your sake, for the sake of every member of this beautiful community, for the sake of everyone in our global household. So, please know, we will not be one of the first churches to open. We won’t be in the first wave even. We will take our cues from the public health officials who have guided us so well thus far. We have developed plans and precautions for when we do open, to minimize risk as much as possible. Indeed, we are already actively practicing these for all who are present in the building for the livestreaming of worship.
This is our “forty day” quarantine—whatever length of time that means for us—the fullness of time for our work to be accomplished. It is our work at hand, for the common good.

I share these thoughts now, with hope that the message might frame expectations with that common good in mind, with hope that we can find that gift of patience as we continue caring for one another, and with a fervent hope that this community of Saint Mark’s Cathedral will press on its mission with all deliberation. The church building is closed; the Church is open, alive and thriving.

I am, prayerfully and gratefully,
Your Brother in Christ,
The Very Reverend Steven L. Thomason
Dean and Rector