There is a terrible irony in the closing of the churches. What makes our faith so beautiful and unique and nourishing is precisely what makes it dangerous in a time of pandemic. For we have an incarnational, a sacramental, religion. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell our faith. It is the faith of laying on of hands, of anointing, of receiving food from the hands of priests, of gathering to be one. This is a faith that even sees marital sex as sacramental. There is nothing tidy and sterile about any of it.
Christ showed us how important the physical was. He healed with mud and spit or the touch of a cloak. He washed feet and had his feet anointed with oil and dried with hair. Even in His resurrected glory He ate and drank with His disciples and offered his wounded side as physical proof to Thomas. In the bread of life discourse He does not only say that we must eat His body but uses the Hebrew for chew or gnaw. This is a messy, smelly, unhygienic, beautiful human faith. A faith for the body soul composite that is man. It nourishes the needs of the soul partly through engagement with the body.
Now we find ourselves deprived of many of our spiritual senses. We can see and hear, but only at remove through a screen, 2 dimensional, with volume control, non-immersive. We cannot smell, we cannot taste, and touch, well that is turning into a fearful thing as neighbor shies away from neighbor when they pass. Yet somehow, while we cannot live our faith in all its gritty fullness, we must not lose sight of how important this aspect is.
Language can help hold on to the reality of the sacraments in their absence. It has been emphasized that masses are not cancelled. Masses are no longer public. This is an important distinction. “Ite missa est” remains true and the mass remains the source and summit of the faith without congregations. Equally important is to say one may unite with a mass or observe a mass online without saying attend. We are not in attendance nor is there any obligation to mark Sunday in this particular way. Live streaming mass is a great aid to some, allowing them to focus on uniting with the sacrifice that is still going on. It is a reminder that somewhere this is happening in the flesh. If watching a screen creates a feeling of unreality and disconnection rather than this union with an incarnated reality it may be best to find another means of worshiping while we are in exile. For myself, saying a liturgy with the other human beings in my house, feeling a physical connection to them as we unite ourselves with Christ is the more fruitful practice.
Precision requires proper language but so does fraternal charity. Our loss is not merely entry to a building. Many of our brothers and sisters are sorrowful, and frightened because they are cut off from sacraments we have been rightly taught were both essential and dispensed by a ministerial priesthood. For some their faith is shaken. Does their church believe what it has taught? Yes, we can go a lifetime without receiving the Eucharist again. Yes, we can find forgiveness outside of confession.
Still the sacraments remain essential to the faith and any impression they are pleasant extras should be avoided. When we react to genuine pain and confusion with a facile answer, or worse, a scornful one, we bring no comfort nor bear witness to the truth of sacramental theology.
Longing itself can also serve as a very concrete reminder of the reality of the sacraments. Is not starving as physical an experience as eating your fill? Looking with longing at the beloved can be as intimate as embrace. Feeling and expressing bereavement can be a source of connection with the very thing we lack. I have felt so close to Christ in my panting for the Eucharist. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least sometimes apathy and languor. All is made new with longing. As one may be reminded of their need for a spouse in their absence so our hearts can grow fonder for the Bridegroom.
Priests should also find ways to express their yearning for the flock. “I thirst” says Jesus from the cross and this is understood to represent his thirst (again the spiritual expressed with the physical) for souls. Priests should express their thirst for reunion too. Calling parishioners, waiting in hopeful anticipation in parking lots to offer reconciliation, processing through empty streets, extending a monstrance towards an empty St. Peter’s Square, these are beautiful expressions of longing, of reaching out even when we cannot touch. Young priests volunteering to risk their health and give up their freedom to strict quarantine so they can off anointing of the sick to the dying. Across the country laity are reaching out to their Fathers and their churches, let them feel the clergy are reaching back into our lives.
Finally, we must never think that the incarnational aspects of our faith are unnecessary or even bad. That absolutely cannot be the lesson of this pandemic. As we experience the suffering of isolation it should be a confirmation of how crucial communion is. We are not protecting ourselves and our neighbors so that we can live in sterile empty safety. Life is more than physical health, it is human flourishing.
Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Abundance is a deluge, a spilling over, a luxurious torrent of life. A life of spiritual overflow engaging the whole person body and soul. Praise God we have a faith that sustains this. May we be free to practice it in all its fullness soon.