Returning to Church Post-Quarantine: The Liturgy of the Senses

Protection of Holy Virgin Cathedral, NYC

The Lenten Quarantine

Like many houses of worship, the church I attend (not pictured) closed in March to all but “essential” liturgical personnel. In this case, “essential” meant clergy, an altar server (or two) and a chanter (or two.) Services were streamed over the Internet so the rest of the faithful could watch from our homes. At first, I didn’t mind the quarantine from communal worship. I am fairly active in the life of my local parish and my Sundays were usually overly busy. It was mid-lent and the idea of a more introspective Lenten season seemed welcome. For the remainder of Lent, liturgy was still part of my Sunday morning experience, but it was one experienced alone on the couch (and often, I am somewhat embarrassed to say, while I was still in my pajamas with breakfast in hand.) I hummed along with the chanters to sing the responses to the service (as singing has always been a large part of my liturgical experience) and listened attentively to the readings and homily. However, as the weeks passed by, this experience grew stale. My remote experience of the services of Holy Week lacked their usual evocative character and, for me, the celebration of Pascha, which is usually met with such joy, fell flat. Although streaming services can help to connect people who otherwise cannot attend, for me, they paled in comparison to the real thing. I missed the communal and sensorial experience of the event. Liturgists are always fond of saying that liturgy is more than just the texts. Well, it turns out, that maxim is really true!

Returning to Church

With the gradual opening of society in my state has come a gradual opening up of church services to the larger congregation. The circle of the physical assembly is now open to twenty persons (in addition to said “essential” personnel.) Recently, I was able to attend the midweek celebration of the Feast of the Ascension. I arrived at church with my hand sanitizer in hand and donning my mask, two required additions to church attendance. The first thing I noticed, even before I made my way to the sanctuary, was the smell of incense that seems to permanently permeate the environs of the church.

The first thing I noticed, even before I made my way to the sanctuary, was the smell of incense that seems to permanently permeate the environs of the church.

Smell is (one of) our most primitive senses. For me, it evoked an immediate association with prayer and reverence that had been missing in my home celebrations. (This is not to say that I could not have lit some incense at home, but I was not in the habit of doing so.)   As I entered the worship space the sight of the plethora of icons that usually adorn an Orthodox church grabbed my attention.

As I entered the worship space the sight of the plethora of icons that usually adorn an Orthodox church grabbed my attention.

In the middle of the solea [the area in front of the inner sanctuary] was a large icon of the Ascension, and it immediately focused my attention on the feast. We were given seating assignments so as to be appropriately distanced from one another with each pew denoted by a particular saint. I was assigned to the pew with St. Mary of Egypt. This somehow felt quite appropriate as I have felt somewhat in a liturgical desert over the past few months.  As the service began, I sang along with the chanters (under my mask). We forget that sound is not only heard, but felt. (For instance, we can feel the difference between hearing a concert in person and listening to a recording.) Although it was rather simple chant, the music reverberated off the walls engulfing the assembly in its movement. During the Offering of the Gifts, I was able to participate in the procession as one of the icon bearers (with properly sanitized hands both before and after my service!) Although we are to refrain from kissing icons (a common practice in Orthodox worship) during this time so as not to inadvertently spread disease, touching the icon drew me into an encounter with the Divine that was unexpectedly intimate.

St. Mary of Egypt

I was assigned to the pew with St. Mary of Egypt. This somehow felt quite appropriate as I have felt somewhat in a liturgical desert over the past few months.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few friends that I had not seen in months were also part of the assembly. Although I wanted to give them a big hug at the sharing of the “Kiss of” Peace, we had to let the gaze of our eyes over our masks and the prostration of our bodies say to one another that “Christ is (truly) in our Midst.” Lastly, for the first time in months, I was able to taste the Body and Blood of Christ. My experience of liturgy was again embodied in a way that speaks to the fullness of our humanity.

[Liturgy] calls us to participate in the ministry of Christ with all of our senses and, in doing so, gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Liturgy is not just texts, nor is it meant to be a spectator sport. We are all “essential” personnel. It calls us to participate in the ministry of Christ with all of our senses and, in doing so, gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom. I have written some variations of these last few sentences in any number of papers and proclaimed them in any number of talks I have given over the years, but it is always good to be reminded that it is really true. My experience confirms this.

One comment

  1. I resonate with the permeating smell of incense in both Roman and Orthodox sanctuaries over my 66 years of life, and I LOVE that smell. Now, however, in our Lutheran sanctuaries in the desert Southwest, the permeating smell is that of bleach.

    One day at Lutheran high school chapel, I brought in a censer with incense smoke bellowing therefrom as is appropriate, all I heard was the gagging sound of students (2-3 out of 175) evacuating the sanctuary.

    I have finally formally given up my adult attempt to bring LCMS Lutherans into a love of liturgy and rite. The iconoclasm reaches even to the presence of the corpus of our Lord on the Cross vs. the “empty” Cross (He did rise from the dead, didn’t He?). I give up….let them smell bleach!

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