“I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord”

In the past five to six weeks, many blogs on this site have been a rich source of information on how to do liturgy through social media and reflections on what doing liturgy this way means, particularly in the conundrum of incarnate sacraments postponed or viewed online. In the midst of what has now been a pentecost of eucharistic and communal famine for many, there are places around the world where the church catholic is returning to their buildings and welcoming small numbers of participants physically back to liturgies. Several recent blogs have shared what might constitute good practices when these returns happen, what is normative liturgical practice (those primary elements as opposed to secondary elements of importance), and how much ‘normative’ can be retained in these ongoing extraordinary times. Hanging over these theological and ritual questions is the great unknown of the coronavirus – will it continue to morph into other carriers and symptoms? How long will it be a central part of the lives of people around the world?

For the moment, I will leave to others the minutiae of how and when this return might work ritually, I want to ask a slightly different question, which is more about what we have learned in our time of enforced separation. Inspired by a great line from the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles (the Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor), “in recovering what we love we should be sure to claim all we have learned,” I might suggest that these 50 days (and probably a good 20-30 more for many) have not only been traumatic and unpleasant for some, life-changing and deadly for others, but have forced us to ask difficult theological questions and to learn how to pray in different ways. For some religious and clergy, liturgies have gone on in a regular pattern, if not with a normative gathering of the community. But for many (clergy and laity alike), the regularity of the eucharistic feast turned into eucharistic famine has been one of absence and longing.

What have we learned? (and what do we continue to learn?) I think first of the articulation by many theologians regarding the difference between worship and liturgy. Worship of God is a lifestyle, liturgy is one way to worship. In other words, worship is the umbrella term, liturgy a subset. Worship in its fullness is “the orientation of all forms of human activity, including the liturgical or ritual, toward a particular allegiance,” (drawing on Andrew B. McGowan’s work in Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, 2014.) Our lives as Christians are lives of worship then, which encompass all aspects of how we live after death, having died in Christ, rather than the particular events or actions we call liturgy. What have we learned? Many Christians have expressed in blogs, social media, and online conversations that they have learned to pray. They have learned something of the breadth of the riches of Christian tradition: liturgy of the hours, devotional prayers and ritual practices, prayers of movement and domestic altars, prayer corners with icons and candles. Those who have always done this may shrug their shoulders, but the overwhelming number of comments expressing surprise that things such as morning and evening prayer existed (and clamoring for Zoom guidance on how to do it), that families could pray together without a priest or other “professional” leader, that diocesan guidelines for the domestic church to celebrate the Triduum and other important holy days gave permission and encouragement, left many uncatechized baptized holding the bag and finally realizing, ‘if not us, then who?’ They stepped up, and prayer happened!

A life of worship less focused on Sunday eucharistic participation has also brought many to the realization of something that has always been there – that our lives – flowing from our baptism and from the eucharist must lead us to be agents of God’s mercy in the world. In the light of this worldwide pandemic, this ‘worship’ has opened the eyes of many to recognize that ‘returning to normal’ is not completely ideal. Again, many Christians have always known and preached this – in words and actions – but the glaring gap between those who have and those who have little is so unavoidable that it has sunk into conversations among people who have blissfully ignored reality for decades. A group of doctors and nurses from UCSF travelled to the Navajo nation to offer their assistance for a month summarized this perspective of privilege by saying that “shelter in place is an inconvenience instead of an impossibility” for many. Many have abundant shelter (large enough to accommodate isolating), salaries, food, and time on their hands – others, including many essential workers who have been overlooked in ‘normal’ times – have none of this. Economic realities (paired often with geographical, racial, social divides) are impossible to ignore. How will we remain conscious of these political realities? Related to this is the tension between the cultural ‘hyper-individualism’ and Christianity, which is a ‘we’ religion. How can we keep before our eyes the multiple slogans arising from the coronavirus, “we are all in this together”, in other words, self-sacrifice for the common good, as the essence of Christianity – as worship of God – and essential for the larger society?

Lastly, the intensity of theological debates on virtual eucharist, virtual communion, online participation, spiritual communion, the difference between prayer and sacrament, what does ordination do, why have priests, what is essential and what is not essential in extraordinary times have been overwhelming and exhausting for many of us who try to keep up. Just when I think I cannot be surprised anymore, someone will ask why something matters at all, or “I thought the eucharist was just this, or that…” Many theologians (academic, ecclesial, pastoral, practical – how ever one wants to categorize them) have lamented the absence of theology from parish discourse (even seminary discourse) for a long time, but theology as worship of God – faith seeking understanding – having a reason for the faith that is within us – is not an optional sidebar. I have spoken at clergy conferences where the word ‘theology’ is met with eye-rolling, and countered with ‘we should be talking about how people feel or what they want so that they will come back again.’ What have we learned? People are interested in what liturgy means, and hopefully interested in what a life of worship means. Many people are also woefully ill-informed of the depth and complexity of theology, including some clergy. How and where will we raise up the centrality of theology (sacramental theology in particular) for all the baptized, not apologizing for the faith that is in us, but inviting dialogue and difference as we grow more deeply into our lives of worship?

What have we learned? I have heard again and again from parents sheltering at home with children how, in spite of the frustrations of working, teaching, cooking and life in general, they have gotten to know their children. They finally have time to talk, to read, to pursue activities. They describe the good (and the not so good) in ways similar to how people talk about sabbaticals – as a changed pace and rhythm to life. They are the fortunate ones, but how will the privileged and the poor, how will all of us, learn from this time? How, in being taken, blessed, broken, and shared, will we return to the eucharist wiser and grateful – giving thanks for the small things we have seen and heard and done in the past months?


2 comments

  1. Jesuits (and others) speak of ‘indifference’, which can mean many things. One is, looking for the good that can come out of some interruption in our habitual ways of doing things; even in unwelcome or calamitous events. For example, Ignatius was laid up in bed with severe wounds for several months and as a result was converted.

    It’s great and refreshing to read how sheltering in place has resulted in just this sort of thing among many people. I really find the ‘worship/liturgy’ distinction to be helpful. Rather than being fish out of water, it’s possible to think of ourselves as fish cast into a larger lake we didn’t know about. We’ll still go back to Church, perhaps better for this.

    Of course, this doesn’t discount or trivialize the real suffering some have experienced.

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