So, I walk into church (and yes, I know how fortunate I am to do just that…). I reach for the holy water to remind myself of who I am, a member of the body of Christ, and to be reclaimed in that identity (and because it’s automatic – I always do this), but the font/the holy water stoup is empty. Instead, perched on the side is a large bottle of hand sanitizer, which requires both hands, so I rearrange keys and camera and squeeze out a blob, rubbing my hands together as I say to myself “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Can I do that?
I wrote a couple months ago on PrayTellBlog about using the necessity of frequent handwashing as a restored occasion of prayer – taking what was a tradition in the early church, later carried through to those preparing to lead the community in prayer and sacrament, and re-uniting this element of our tradition with the new reality in a time of plague. But here, water – the stuff of life, what cleanses on a physical and quotidian basis, what recalls our eternal bath of new birth, reconciliation, and lifelong transformation – is missing. The form of this sacramental was there, but the matter has seriously morphed – does this make any sense of a ritual of sensible mystery?
As many communities return to some type of proximate and embodied liturgy (while still offering a livestreamed event or an asynchronous worship video) many have suggested that we will have a lot of re-education to do (for all of us). But I am also fascinated with the interface of popular piety (here personal rituals or personal interpretations of rituals) and the liturgy of the church as both adapt to how things need to be done at the moment. Take the reception of communion – in those ecclesial communities where kneeling together at the altar rail and receiving in close proximity was the norm – it’s not anymore! But even with those communities where continuous communion in a line was the norm, the line is now individualized – our assigned distances are noted in masking tape (or cleverly marketed stickers) on the floor, and both receiver and giver are masked, often reaching over a table or other barrier to assure distance is maintained (let alone the obvious end of communion on the tongue for the time being). Communion under one species is the norm – the consecrated bread is now almost always from separate hosts, not from a single loaf. Even when things were “normal”, the one loaf of carefully baked eucharistic bread was broken into small pieces by the time communion came along – my piece, your piece, and the next person’s piece – but at least there was the cup, the common cup which was a tangible (if annoying to some) reminder of the corporate communion in communion. Now the theological ritual fight against consumer culture’s fragmentation and abstraction of things and actions is even more challenged by the necessities of life in a time of plague.
What are the prayers we pray individually after receiving communion now? Instead of :”O Lord Jesus Christ, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” (BCP 1979, 834), should we instead be praying for an understanding of what doesn’t seem so apparent in our ‘one person per pew’ arrangement – for the body of Christ as a single body, not the visual aggregate surrounding us: “Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” (BCP 1979, 255)
What strange alignments of ritual action and verbal formulae will we need to construct, what changes in our personal engagement with the corporate liturgy will we need to invent (and then, in a not so distant future, relinquish)? On the other hand, what actions and prayers will we pick up or let go of before, during, and after the official liturgies of the church that we would not have known otherwise? The kiss of peace has ceased to be “coffee hour without the coffee”, most offer a slight bow in the general direction of others, the odd sixties peace sign, right hand across the heart in a return to early Christian and Middle Eastern gestures, or simply ignore many around them, letting the primary ‘sign’ of peace rest in the initial verbal exchange beween presider and community.
Presiders make do with lecterns for the presidential prayers requiring an orans, rather than acolytes or servers – often changing the presiding role from coordination of a group of liturgical ministers back to a one-person ministry of celebrant. The gifts of bread and wine are not carried up, but often moved several inches from a nearby credence table to the altar by the presider. The collection of money has gone digital, or fallen into line with Buddhist temple practice via Hawaiian Christian adoption of an alms basin left in the back of church. Palls have made a comeback for both paten and chalice, and effective hand sanitizing is both a visual and an audible prelude to the distribution of communion. In a particularly confusing moment, without any processions out or orderly leavetaking, most participants stand awkwardly around waiting until someone moves, then everyone packs out at the same time-remembers they should not do that, and hold back – making leaving the building fraught with uncertainty. This summer, one community’s wise leadership made the announcement that the left side would leave from the back forward leaving social distancing in place, and only then the right side would move – it worked!
Ritually and liturgically we live in interesting times – what will we gain and what will we lose? Above all, our actions and words need to proclaim to all that God remains with us through the pandemic, through the fires, through the climate changes, through the economic disasters, through the violence of racial strife and injustice, through the mean-spirited politics, through all of it. Feel free to sing by yourself (or with others): “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”