I recently attended Sunday Mass at a well-known cathedral. The homily reminded me of something I had begun to appreciate about live-streamed Masses, namely, to do something else if a homiletic path turned torturous for my spirit (full disclosure: I would devotedly water my house plants while the sermon lasted).
On this particular Sunday in the cathedral, the preacher bemoaned how many people were absent, in comparison with pre-COVID-19 times. He also offered specific numbers, of people who had registered online to participate in this post-lockdown Mass and then not shown up. Last not least, he revealed that the available slots for a post-lockdown Sunday Mass at the Cathedral had never all been claimed since online registration became available, and compulsory in the service of re-opening places of public gathering.
I am definitely not a relentlessly cheerful person, but I saw something else in this liturgy than the preacher did. He seemed to see mostly the absence of in-person worshipers. I went to this Mass (and all other Masses since re-opening) determined to discern one reality, and one reality above all others, the encounter with the Living God. The rest, as I kept repeating to myself amidst manifold re-opening liturgical distractions, was peanuts.
Since I have now participated in several other Masses in various brick-and-mortar sanctuaries after re-opening began, and that across two continents, my experiences and struggles with my own commitment have begun to flow together into some basic convictions about pandemic protocols on worship. Here they are:
- Glorifying celebrations in brick-and-mortar sanctuaries and bemoaning digitally-mediated liturgical celebrations is ultimately not convincing, at least not for me. I have written about the reasons for my conviction at some length elsewhere, so will simply say here that I am convinced that both mediations of liturgical life can spell grace, albeit under quite different protocols. Overall, live-streamed Masses, especially in a ferocious pandemic, are definitely not diminishment only. (In the first Mass I attended in a brick-and-mortar church after re-opening, I had to force myself not to dance during the Gloria, which I had been at liberty to do during months of lock-down and live-streamed liturgies only; standing still in a pew suddenly felt constrained and somewhat joyless).
- Pandemic protocols for liturgical celebrations are no doubt cumbersome, time-consuming, and debatable (the latter especially for those with professional stakes in the debate). But we all too easily forget that no liturgical celebration has ever been “protocol free” – and I do not mean only ecclesial protocols here, but also social, cultural, economic, and political ones. Many of these protocols have been naturalized in our experience, and are thus largely invisible to us. Think but of the practice of wearing shoes. Or ask yourself how many men you have recently seen come to Mass in mini-skirts. New, seemingly alien protocols therefore strike some as constraining our previous “freedom” to worship. Freedom here, however, I would suggest, is largely a code for the many protocols we have long ago accepted as given in everyday life. I actually find myself intrigued by these new, very visible (and, given a ferocious pandemic, ultimately: life-saving) protocols. They force us to think about all protocols – old and new, invisible and very visible — under which we celebrate liturgy and seek to encounter the Living God.
- If multiple mediations and protocols have always been part of the encounter with God under liturgical signs, then a moment like now, when a new force intervenes to shape how we gather for worship, essentially invites us to step back in order to ask the big questions (rather than fretting over the minutiae of the new normal). We could ask: What does it mean to enter into the presence of God under liturgical signs and symbols in our current context, in the midst of a ferocious pandemic? How does God spell redemption in worship in this context? What is truly essential for encountering the Holy One? I, for one, did not find the pandemic protocols in the cathedral (online registration, social distance, masks) much more cumbersome than I found having to put on some nice, new shoes on a hot summer day. And I was moved by how many people came forward to receive the Eucharistic Bread of Life, slowly, watchfully distanced from each other, in various bodily postures, and in a delicate dance around the new liturgical instruments in place, e.g., plexiglass dividers. As one of the last to approach the priest, a young woman with her child in her arms managed to kneel and receive the host through the hole in the plexiglass divider. The priest blessed her child. The young mother rose with some difficulty from her kneeling position. But she was there. With her child. And I trust they encountered the God they had come to meet.