Ars Praedicandi: Preaching Pandemic

I do not know how much longer we will be celebrating public Masses in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Many of the larger suburban parishes that routinely get more than 250 people (the limit now set for public gatherings by the state of Maryland) have already canceled their Masses. The Cathedral usually gets not many more than 250 at each of the five Sunday Masses, so, at least for the moment, we are proceeding with public celebration of the liturgy. So I am taking the opportunity this Sunday to reflect with our assembly on different sorts of “social distancing”–to offer resources for an examination of conscience in this extraordinary moment and to help prepare for what might lie ahead.

UPDATE: Masses have been canceled in Baltimore, so this homily won’t be preached. Others will be making much greater sacrifices.

UPDATE 2: So in this brave new world I decided (urged by my wife and son) to stream my homily from home (starts around the 4 minute mark). This has got me thinking about what we might do for however long the suspension of public worship lasts in order to at least virtually gather people together.

Among the many new things that the coronavirus
has brought into our lives
is the phrase “social distancing.”
This is the term for one of the key prescriptions
for slowing the spread of the coronavirus
to the point where cases of Covid-19
do not overwhelm our medical facilities.
The idea is that you literally “keep your distance”
from other people to reduce the chance
of being infected or infecting others.

In today’s Gospel, which tells of Jesus’ encounter
with the Samaritan woman at the well,
we hear of a different kind of social distancing.
The woman is surprised
to have Jesus ask her for a drink
because, we are told,
“Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.”
Jews and Samaritans viewed each other as heretics
who practiced deviant forms of the religion of Israel.
But more than that, Jews considered Samaritans
to be in a sense “unclean,”
sources of a kind of religious contagion.
For the Jews, social contact with a Samaritan
was a risk to one’s religious purity.
This is why the Samaritan woman is so shocked
to have Jesus ask her for water;
it is as if you asked to drink from the water bottle
of someone with a deadly disease.
This sort of social distancing sees the other,
at best, as one beyond my sphere of moral concern
and, at worst, as a threat to be contained or eliminated.
It is a phenomenon that is still with us today,
manifest in divisions of race and economic class,
of nations and generations.
We see it when people act as if
the pain and struggle of those who are different
must be kept at a distance,
lest they infect us.

What do these two kinds of social distancing
have to do with each other?
The first sort is a necessary and life-saving measure
to slow the progress of this disease.
But the second sort of social distancing,
the kind that separated Jews and Samaritans,
the kind that separates races and classes in our own day,
rather than being a life-saving measure,
is a death-dealing way of life.
It is death-dealing to those we keep at a distance
because it seeks to make us immune to their struggles
and deaf to their cries of suffering.
It is death-dealing to us as well,
because it requires us to harden our hearts,
to deny any natural compassion for
and solidarity with our fellow human beings.
It makes us less human,
less fully alive with the love that is God.

Jesus breaks through
this death-dealing social distancing
by the simple act of asking
the Samaritan woman for a drink of water.
Jesus bridges the social distance
between Jew and Samaritan,
breaking down the dividing wall
that separated them,
so that he can offer her the water of eternal life.
He does this not only for the Samaritan woman
but for all of us who were far from God through sin,
our hearts hardened to both God and neighbor.
Paul writes in today’s second reading,
“while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
In Jesus Christ, God has opened his heart to us
and crossed the distance separating us,
and he calls us to do the same.

So we can distinguish between
the social distancing that we must undertake
in these extraordinary circumstances
and the social distancing that we must overcome
by throwing caution to the wind
and stepping across the dividing lines
of race and class and age and nationality.
Lent is a time to examine our consciences
and return to the Lord;
this public health crisis also calls for us
to examine our consciences.
I may be confident that I am healthy enough
to carry on my life as usual
and run the risk of getting sick with Covid-19,
but do I spare a thought for the elderly
or the physically frail person
with whom I come in contact
and whom I might infect?
I may feel a sense of relief
at the closing my children’s school
as a measure to protect them from infection,
but do I spare a thought for
the single working parent who will be left
without childcare if the schools close?
I may not worry about my ability
to receive excellent medical care
should I fall ill,
but do I spare a thought for the uninsured
or for those in medically underserved areas?
The death-dealing social distancing
that runs throughout our society
makes it easy to think only of ourselves
and to make ourselves blind and deaf
to those who are most vulnerable.

Our Catholics tradition calls us to care
not only for our individual well-being,
but for the common good of all people.
Now is the acceptable time to embrace that tradition.
It is not only prudent that we adopt practices
of physical social distancing in order to slow
the spread of a potentially deadly disease,
but it is something that love demands.
And it is imperative that we
who are followers of Jesus
reject the social distancing that blinds us
to the needs of those most vulnerable.
Moses struck the rock in the desert
with his wooded staff
and life-giving water flowed forth.
In this season of Lent,
in this time of crisis,
may the wood of the cross
strike our stony hearts
so that the life-giving water of God’s love
may flow forth from us
to quench the thirst
of those most in need.
And may God have mercy on us all.

One comment

  1. Wonderful example of using a current social reality to illuminate a Gospel truth. Simple, powerful and direct. Thank you.

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