On Easter Sunday I participated in two online Masses, and the different platforms used, and the different experiences engendered by those platforms, have prompted me to think about the different elements of liturgical experience.
One was the Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen here in Baltimore. A couple of years ago the Cathedral began live streaming their service on YouTube and thus was more or less ready when public Masses were canceled on the Third Sunday of Lent. Since the Fourth Sunday of Lent I have served as deacon at those Masses, which have been celebrated by the Archbishop of Baltimore. Keeping under the legal limit of a gathering of ten people, a dedicated cadre of staff and volunteers have been able to stream liturgies that, while perhaps pared back a bit from what would be normal at the Cathedral, still convey the richness of Catholic ritual and music and art and have reached literally thousands of viewers around the country. A viewer living in Pennsylvania wrote to our director of communications, “I need traditional music and liturgy during this time and the Archdiocesan staff satisfied my longing magnificently.”
The other Mass, which I participated in earlier that morning, was facilitated via the video-conferencing platform Zoom (which anyone in higher education has recently gotten a sudden crash course in). This was the celebration of the parish where I was previously assigned, and where my wife and son still attend. It is a small parish in the inner city with a close-knit body of parishioners. Unlike the cathedral, this parish has no infrastructure for streaming services, so when public Masses were canceled, there was no immediately obvious way to make Mass available to people. But on Palm Sunday, thanks to the efforts of a couple of dedicated parishioners, Mass was celebrated via Zoom. On Easter Sunday, 52 computers were logged on, and taking account of people watching in groups, about 120 participated. Only the priest and one person running the Zoom meeting were physically in the church. Musicians, readers, and even the deacon participated from home (I must say, it felt a little strange to be wearing vestments in my dining room). Sound quality on Zoom is not particularly good, so the talents of the musicians were not showcased particularly well. But, unlike a liturgy streamed over YouTube, you could scroll through and see the faces of the participants, and at the sign of peace everyone’s audio was unmuted and a cacophony of Easter greetings rang out.
The streamed Cathedral liturgy offered what was, under the circumstances, an effective display of the beauty of the liturgy. Our two musicians, our single server/sacristan, our lector, our behind-the-scenes camera operator, and the clergy gave it their all in order that the thousands of viewers might catch a glimpse of Easter glory. But it was very strange, as one of the ministers of the liturgy, to be in the vast empty space that is the Cathedral, and one needed to exercise a good deal of imagination to try to feel a connection to whomever might be watching. The Archbishop mentioned to me that he cannot preach to a glowing red light on a camera and has to try to imagine the people who might be on the other side of the screen. It is also strange at communion to receive communion without then offering it to anyone else. I felt quite sharply the truth of Newman’s quip, when asked by his bishop, “Who are the laity?”, that “the Church would look foolish without them.”
The Zoom Mass would obviously not have worked with the thousands of viewers of the Cathedral Mass. Not only would that many people have crashed the platform, but the effectiveness of this medium depended upon the fact that most people knew each other well and had been longing for weeks to see each other’s faces. Scrolling through the little boxes that have grown so familiar in these days of online meetings, I saw grandparents and grandchildren who have been socially distant from each other able to be “together” in some odd virtual way for the celebration of the resurrection. The grandeur of the liturgy was not on such obvious display, but the glory of Easter was nonetheless present, the glory of being reunited with those beloved ones whom the world had taken from you, the glory of the risen Jesus appearing in the upper room to say to his friends, “Do not be afraid.”
Liturgy is an odd mix of the vertical and the horizontal, formality and intimacy, grandeur and humility. And I am more than ever convinced that it is only our physical presence to each other that can really accomplish all that the liturgy needs to do. Even apart from the impossibility of being able actually to share the Eucharist together, no virtual medium can convey everything that physically gathering can. But for the time being we do the best we can, and these strange times can teach us things about what liturgy is and what we value in it. And perhaps when the day comes when we can once again gather, we can use what we have learned to celebrate the liturgy even more worthily and with greater fervor.