Endgame, the 22nd installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focuses on the mission of the superhero team, The Avengers, to reset time after the catastrophic elimination of half of the world’s population. (You can look up the reasons why this happened on Wikipedia). They succeed in doing so albeit with the loss of Iron Man. (Robert Downey Jr, who may have wanted to go on to other roles after so many years as Iron Man.) The film served as a conclusion, but maybe not really a conclusion, to one of many story arcs that currently comprise the Marvel Studio franchise. A bittersweet denouement, leaving the movie-goer with both satisfaction that the good-side won and a bit of regret at not knowing what follows. (There was no teaser trailer at the end of Endgame — darn it!)
In one of the scenes from the film a debate takes places about whether time should be reset or not; to go back to the way things were or remain on the course of history now lived. The post-“Snap” world (that is how half the population disappears — with the snap of a finger) is less polluted, nature balances itself, the atmosphere stabilizes, whales are seen in the lower Hudson River, etc… Amid the grief of unspeakable loss, creation is renewed. The debate ends in favor of reversing time and…success! The Avengers restore the pre-“Snap” world — sans Robert Downey Jr.
What the film fails to mention, or at least not makes clear, is whether or not anyone learned anything from this experience? The world appears merely reset to the same issues and problems it had prior to the catastrophe. So, did war, famine, pollution, poverty, inequalities, racism, failed government all make a return? Marvel movie-lovers may have got all their superheroes back (save, again, poor Iron Man), but what difference did any of this make in the long run? In the great desire to return reality to what it was, there seems lacking an assessment of what that “was” was in the first place.
And after that last infelicitous sentence, what, you may ask, has any of this to do with liturgy?
Well, as art imitates life at times, we might see ourselves at this point in the Coronavirus pandemic strangely on a parallel with the narrative arc of Endgame. Because of stay-at-homes orders the air is cleaner, the Ozone layer is repairing itself, and you can see a jellyfish or two languidly cruising along Venetian canals. Live-stream Eucharists and worship services become the norm for Christian liturgy as dioceses postpone or modify other sacramental rituals to deal with the pandemic’s restrictions.
It has been roughly ten weeks since the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic prevented believers from active “in person” participation in the sacraments, most notably in the Eucharistic liturgy. A difficult, frustrating, anxious, and stressful time, made all the more disheartening by our inability to gather as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. And yet, the time comes, if not already here, for relaxing restrictions or removing them altogether. Religious gatherings in open air spaces become more and more permissible, and concessions to assemblies in numbers greater than 10, promising. These developments lead to questions and reflections on how we should move toward greater personal interaction, or even if we are ready for such a move. The concern is the risk of further infection and continued care for public health and the common good.
But might there be another consideration, one to which I wonder we are only beginning to give thought. In effect, making the return to celebrating our sacraments as we have always celebrated them, what have we learned from this time without regular access to them? What has this time revealed to us about the role that the Church’s sacraments play or should play in our lives as believers? Far from ever ever advocating doing away with the sacraments, a topic some drastic sources have broached due to our long (although it hasn’t really been that long) absence from them, it is time to further discern, along the cogitation of French philosopher Michel Foucault, what “doing” sacraments truly “does.” What is the efficacious impact of sacramental ritual upon our daily human lives?
The Second Vatican Council freed sacramental understanding from what J.D. Crichton named its “fossilized medieval rites,” which turned religion into “the non-worship of an inoperative Deity combined with a tedious moralism and an emphasis on duty.” This freedom retrieved an awareness that sacraments, as Kevin Irwin writes, “draw the church into an experience of Christ’s paschal mystery,” facilitated and enacted through active participation by the whole assembly of believers and the ordained who preside, employing scripture, rites, and prayer texts “describing the save act of God…occurring through them.” The reform of our sacramental rituals sought to actualize such awareness.
The question is, though, have we as a church effectively engaged such an encounter with God through the reform of our sacramental liturgies? If and when we return to regular assembly and celebration of our sacraments, will it be just “business as usual,” or could it become much more? Might this time we find ourselves in, where again and again we hear about slowing down, and learning to appreciate more the things we took for granted, also give us time for profitable reflection on “what we have done, and what we have failed to do” when it comes to sacramental encounter.
Let’s just take a one example. In many dioceses the virus has either delayed the episcopal celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, or has led to the delegating of the sacrament to pastors. According to Canon 1 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacraments-On Confirmation (1547): If any one says that the confirmation of those baptized is an empty ceremony and not a true and proper sacrament; or that of old it was nothing more than a sort of instruction, whereby those approaching adolescence gave an account of their faith to the Church; let him be anathema.
And yet, some parishes present Confirmation as a sacrament of Catholic adulthood or an adult acceptance of the faith. Could this time of delayed reception or reception facilitated by the immediate pastors of the faithful enable believers access to a fuller envisioning of how Confirmation acts in our lives? Could it restore Confirmation’s link especially to Baptism and Initiation?
The pandemic has carelessly tossed our sacramental experience — what was familiar, ordinary, common and comfortable — high into the air. We call upon God to restore it back to what it was. But might God be asking more from us? In our prayer and lament, are we missing, perhaps, a deeper and more profound invitation from God to an abounding embrace of our sacramental rituals. God drawing us out and into — duc in altem! — something new about what sacramental ritual calls us to be?
If we are attentive to Sacred Scripture we realize God is anything but business as usual. The transformational nature of sacramental ritual actualizes the extraordinary in the ordinary. As Crichton also wrote, “it is in the daily living of Christians that manifests the great mystery of Christ, which is the mystery of salvation. It is in this daily living that the non-believer will (or will not) find, as it were incarnated, the love God has show to humanity.” For Crichton and for Irwin, sacramental life is a dare that should not be taken lightly.
Salvation is messy, just look at the way we can baptize, especially adults. We drench, if not immerse, our candidates in life giving water. We slather them with Chrism to seal within them the Holy Spirit! In our earnest desire to reclaim our pre-pandemic experience of the sacraments, we should not neglect what profound wonders God can reveal to us in this very messy time about what it means to be a sacramental people. This pandemic has taken us through the Paschal Mystery, which affirms again and again that life can come from death. In this time in our human history, God indeed may be asking us to rethink and reorient ourselves to what it means to give and to receive these seven fundamentally central encounters new life, so that they in turn immerse us more fully into the life of the risen Christ.