If you have gone to most any news or newspaper website in the last few months, then you know that you have not needed to look for long before you read something about vaccines. Most days you don’t even need to scroll down to see a news story on this subject. Getting one of the three available COVID vaccines is what everyone is talking about. Facebook of late has featured a lot of posts of people happily displaying their CDC COVID-19 vaccine cards after getting the first and/or second dose. This has led to lots of “Congrats!” comments but not a few evidences of what we could almost call “vaccine envy” from those of us who have not yet been able to access the vaccine—a medical breakthrough that we all hope will lead us out of this dark pandemic someday.
Science has been fiddling around with the core ideas behind vaccines since the late 18th century when a British doctor named Edward Jenner figured out that injecting a person with a small amount of the fairly benign cowpox virus somehow made that person immune to getting the highly deadly smallpox disease. But it’s been in the last century that vaccine research and development picked up steam with, among other things, the dramatic breakthrough by Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine.
Those of us who have been living with a level of fear about COVID for the last year cannot quite imagine the fear that gripped parents decades ago when it came to the prospect of their children contracting polio. During the months of the year when people were most prone to contract polio, most households held self-imposed lockdowns to protect especially children. Probably we cannot overstate the relief that the polio vaccine brought to millions. But as the 20th century rolled on, the development of annual influenza vaccines continued apace as did something like the MMR vaccine most of us got as children to protect against the once-common (but now rare) ailments of measles, mumps, and rubella.
Until recently with the development of messenger RNA vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna shots, the principle behind vaccines was almost counterintuitive. Because it turned out that a great way to protect against getting a disease big-time was essentially to expose a person to that very same disease but on a safe scale. Vaccines contained either very tiny amounts of the disease in question or inert (essentially dead) samples of the disease. Either way the body’s immune system looked at this new kid on the viral block and formed antibodies to kill it. Thus if this same virus ever tried to show up in a serious way, the body could say “We’ve seen you before, pal, so take this!” and, voila, the person was protected. (We really are fearfully and wonderfully made!)
It is, as Neal Plantinga wrote some years ago, a fine example of like curing like. I think that I also have written about this before on The Twelve so if this all is sounding somewhat familiar, it’s probably not an imagined déjà vu! But Plantinga noticed that this idea of like curing like had a biblical ring to it. The first instance was that time in Israel when God sent venomous serpents into the Israelite camp to punish them for yet another rebellion against God. Despite the fact that God is said to have sent the snakes, nevertheless God tells Moses he has a remedy: put a bronze cast of a snake up onto a pole and if people looked at it, they would be cured of and/or protected against snakebites.
This of course begs the question of why the God who sent the snakes did not simply remove the snakes once people cried out in contrition and desperation. But for some reason that is not what God does. And if this were the end of this tale in Numbers 21 (the whole story is a scant six verses, barely a paragraph), then we could chalk it up as one of many quirky Old Testament stories on a par with floating axe heads and a couple she bears eating some snarky children.
But then you get Jesus in John 3, harking back to this tiny nugget of the Hebrew Scriptures in his conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus compares what he is going to do in getting “lifted up” with that bronze serpent being lifted up by Moses. Even as the people of Israel had to look at an image of what ailed them to be cured of it, so in the end the whole earth would need to look at a dead Son of God as the first step in getting finally inoculated against our most vicious enemy: death itself.
Like cures like.
In this Lenten Season as we are called to gaze again and again on that old rugged cross—and even as we pass through the second Season of Lent in a row that is disrupted by the COVID pandemic—we should marvel at how God defeated death through death. Even as we all wait to get that email, text, or call to tell us know we are next in line for the COVID vaccine, we should let this medical wonder remind us to give thanks for the grandest wonder of them all that is salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Experts claim that the new Johnson&Johnson vaccine—though on the face of it less effective than the first two—seems to be 100% effective in preventing death from COVID. Death is, after all, what we are all trying to avoid in this pandemic. But then, death is just generally what we would all just as soon avoid, and though nothing can prevent us from physically dying at some point, that death does not have the last word.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even if they die. Do you believe this?”