I think that the word, “virtual,” bandied about in so many ways in this time in history, especially as regards liturgical worship, needs a bit of clarification. It is needed all the more, perhaps, as we enter the Christmas Season.
The etymological root of the word, according to Oxford, is the Latin, virtus or virtue, those moral qualities of goodness or desirability in a person. Such qualities were by necessity concrete and tangible in expression so as to provide growth in moral rectitude.
And while this is a fine starting point the adjectival form of virtue, virtual, has transformed over the centuries to refer to an idea a bit removed from the concrete. Oxford defines “virtual” as “that is such in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality. In later use also: supposed, imagined.” When used with the article, “the,” it expresses “that which is virtual rather than actual or real; (now) spec. that which is simulated by computer technology, virtual reality. And this connection with computer technology is perhaps the best know use of the word, virtual: “a computerized or digitized simulation of something; spec. (esp. in earlier use) simulated in virtual reality.”
Simulation, not formal or in actuality, this is what virtual expresses. The virtual links us to computer fantasy, make-believe, and play acting. And yet we have found ourselves so many times these months using this adjective to describe the method of participating in worship. We have spoken of “virtual Masses,” “virtual celebrations,” “virtual weddings and funerals,” and now we describe a “virtual Advent,” which will lead us to a “virtual Christmas.”
Is this what we are doing or have been doing all these months? Are we just play-acting, simulating, pretending to worship, pretending to participate in worship? A continued and unqualified use of virtual to describe our faith in action unconsciously leads us to think we are merely mimicking the reality and truth of what we celebrate. We are not “really” a part of the celebration, the liturgy, we are just viewing, remote watchers, voyeurs. One wonders, then, if those who object to the limits and restrictions we must observe in our current liturgical worship would not be justified in believing they receive nothing substantial from a particular Mass or liturgical event. It’s all just “pretending” to participate since it is “virtual.”
Such an assessment risks neglecting or even forfeiting the foundation upon which liturgy is based, anamnesis, the counterpart to mimicking. To call Christmas a virtual experience this year runs the risk of relegating the Incarnation to an imagined moment where God pretends to know and understand humanity, the cosmos even, but without any true or lasting impact or consequence. Freely and absentmindedly using the word “virtual” again and again without realizing it borders on, perhaps, an incremental docetism, which robs us of the power that the great solemnity of Christmas unleashes upon our world.
In a time in history in which everything is “virtual,” we ought never forget that God becomes one like us in truth and in reality. God does not pretend to be one like us, nor does God become “almost” human, God becomes one like us. This fact must be expressly understood because it celebrates the certitude that at our core humanity is good, good because we are created in the image of our Creator and that core of our goodness can never be undone because it comes from God. As we embrace the gift of our Savior this year, may we commit more and more to living out authentically that image of God, which is our true and inestimable nature; and by that living give glory to God who brings peace and healing with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.