Early on in March of 2020, as church buildings around the U.S. began to be closed to public worship, a meme began circulating on various social media: “The Church is not closed; the Church has been MOBILIZED!”
My initial response was irritation with the false dichotomy that so often emerges: building vs. people. I’ve never been sure why this is so often put forth as an either/or proposition, rather than a both/and. I’ll confess to a certain filter I have that always sees this demeaning of building/institution/liturgy as often having a bit of smugness or self-righteousness about it.
While I had some appreciation for the attempt to put a positive spin on the situation, I was uncomfortable with what seemed (to me, at least) an implication or understanding that the reason for the pandemic was that God had gotten tired of waiting for us to get out there and do something. Most likely this wasn’t the meme’s intent, but it didn’t take long before other items began to appear offering diverse reasons—most of them in the punishment/retribution category—as to why God had caused this pandemic on the earth. One even stated that closing churches was a sign of Christ’s anger at Roman Catholics not believing sufficiently in the Real Presence, or adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament with enough frequency. Full disclosure: I lost my cool a couple of times at this, asking people if they really followed a Christ who would throw a global temper tantrum at some of us not being his BFFs the right way, simultaneously killing innocent victims of other faiths or other Christian traditions, in a sort of adolescent “Mean-Messiah” fit of pique. If so, then we clearly followed two different Christs.
A few weeks passed, and the meme continued to appear, and I continued to wait for the Church to show up in the world, mobilized in some way it had not previously. As time went on, this “mobilization” began to feel more and more like those Ash Wednesdays that ministers would go to commuter rail stops to distribute ashes. It was a THING that felt as though we were doing SOMETHING—but was it truly a Church being mobilized into the world in a new way?
I know that most of the Spirit’s work through the Church’s good and holy actions—mine included—goes by unnoticed, because this work really isn’t intended to be noticed. We don’t give witness to the Gospel for the sake of the attention; Jesus tended to have harsh, strong words for those who tried to find the spotlight for their good deeds. Among the accounts of the horrors the virus was wreaking were accounts of people living and working daily in truly noble and heroic ways. I’m sure that for some of these people this was tied to their faith. Heart-warming and tear-inducing stories that revealed the human potential for goodness also began to appear. Some of these, no doubt, were likewise connected to people’s faith lives.
To be fair, during these past few months it would have been difficult to be physically mobilized when you were living in a location with a “shelter in place” order. Meanwhile, for those of us in the field of liturgical ministry and its related disciplines, much of the focus, time, and energy was spent on learning new technologies: how to livestream worship, how to build a virtual choir, how to continue to reach the now-mobilized Church Sunday by Sunday in new ways. As anyone who is not among the ultra-tech-savvy can tell you, this learning curve was very time consuming.
Every now and then, those of us in the field of liturgical ministry have needed to be reminded that words like liturgy, worship, and Eucharist are verbs primarily, nouns secondarily. We lapse all too esily into the tendency to analyze, research, hypothesize, find historical contexts, and so on. But we must also have the awareness readily at hand that the Church since the Day of Pentecost has been mobilized outward from its buildings and its corporate prayer. We can name it Dismissal Rite or Ite Missa Est, but a mobilization it has been, nevertheless. As much as I am opposed to the relentless tendency of modern language to quickly and readily verbify nouns (and vice-versa), perhaps we need to add “Church” to the list of verbs. The Mass is ended, go in peace, now let’s get out there and get some churching done.
Here’s a Sundays-after-Pentecost opportunity: perhaps this in-Spirit-ing feast of Pentecost can give the Body of Christ the Voice of the Spirit to oppose, address, and work to end the insane divisions and violence that come from differences in language, race, nationality, and ways of life. A society that is no longer broken and wounded by racism would be a good sign that the Church is truly open and is fully mobilized to end the stain of this sin. It’s one opportunity among many, but at this juncture we would be hard pressed to come up with one as important.
Hopefully this can be a lesson we carry forth from this Covidtide (another sacral-esque term to thank the internet and social media for): when we return in various ways—and over a long stretch of time—to public worship in our buildings, we will recall that, as we leave those buildings after having liturgized and eucharisted, we must go out to fill each day outside the building with various kinds of churching.
Now I have to go. I have some churching to get to—and so do you.