Among others, Alexander Schmemann has argued that gathering for worship is a theological act and not merely a sociological amalgamation of like-minded people. Gathering is a response to the Lord’s invitation—a “summons” in the language of Eucharistic Prayer III—to “do this in memory of me” and, in the words of the Preface to Eucharistic Prayer IV, to give “voice to every creature under heaven” in a song of praise and thanksgiving. Indeed, the third-century Didascalia Apostolorum warns Christians about neglecting Lord’s Day gathering and thereby rending and scattering the Lord’s (ecclesial) body.
COVID-19, the coronavirus, has sickened 75,000+ people and killed about 2,000 as of this writing. Responding to the spread of this apparently easily communicable disease, governments have quarantined entire cities (e.g., in China) and placed restrictions on public gathering. Christian communities as well have restricted some gatherings. The Catholic Church in Singapore suspended Masses as did the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. In Italy, too, Mass has been suspended in Milan, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria.
In Ireland, the Archdiocese of Dublin has indicated that holy water fonts should be drained, the presider alone should commune from the chalice, and that Communion under the form of bread is to be given exclusively in the hand.
In the United States, two sample responses from Crookston, MN and Cincinnati, OH include reminding the faithful that if they suspect that they are ill, they are not obliged to attend Mass and for those faithful who do attend, exchanging peace without physical contact and receiving Communion only under the form of bread are permissible options.
The Catholic Church in Singapore has encouraged viewing Mass via video stream online. I am guessing that Catholic officials in other regions are making similar suggestions.
Facing persecution under Diocletian, the martyrs of Abitine explained why they would not forego Eucharistic celebration: “Quia sine dominico non possumus” (because we cannot exist without the day of the Lord).
COVID-19 is not by any means the first time that liturgical gatherings have been suspended. Catholics in Cincinnati, for example, were unable to gather for the Easter Vigil in 2001 because of a curfew imposed in the wake of civil unrest after an unarmed black man was killed by police in that city. COVID-19 will not be the last time that liturgical gatherings will be suspended.
Still, what does it mean to be a people who must exist—even temporarily—without the day of the Lord?