Today I went to Mass. In person. And received the Eucharist.
In the time before the COVID-19 pandemic, this would not have been an unusual occurrence. But once the national shutdown and local stay-at-home orders happened, I went to Sunday Mass via Zoom. The last time I actually went to Communion was early March 2020.
Even at that Mass, the signs of pandemic caution were evident. We did not share the chalice. We did not shake hands. We did not sing. We didn't yet know how essential masks would become to slowing the spread of the virus, but we knew to keep our distance. We also pumped sanitizer liberally into our nervous hands.
Back then we thought we'd be away from Mass for two weeks, give or take. Certainly, we'd be back in church by Easter. We were so innocent then. As it turned out, most of us weren't even back by Easter 2021.
The obligation to go to Mass every Sunday is a big Catholic deal. Even if we are out-of-town for vacation or business, we are supposed to find a Catholic church and go to Mass: In place of the Yellow Pages we once used to find a nearby church, phone apps now assist us. You need a really good reason to skip Mass. But during COVID-19, we were given dispensations by our bishops. We could watch Mass on TV or online, or join a Zoom Mass, but there was no way to go to Communion. Instead, we learned about "spiritual Communion," where you receive the grace of the Eucharist without actually consuming the Body of Christ.
I thought I would miss the physical act of sharing the Eucharistic meal communally more than I did at first. After checking out online Masses from around the United States while seated at my kitchen table, I joined a Zoom Mass with an inspired homilist and a lively group of co-Zoomers, including my sister and her family and two of my daughters. Maybe because we were all in the same boat, figuratively and theologically, the spiritual Communion of Zoom seemed enough.
But Catholicism is an incarnational religion. We believe God became a man, and we believe that man, Jesus Christ, is really present in the appearance of bread and wine. Truly, literally, here among us. Months into Zoom, I did miss the Eucharist. So once I was fully vaccinated, I wanted to go to Mass in person. But I was anxious.
Because Jesus tells us, again and again in the Gospels, "Do not be afraid," I prayed to lose my fear of being close to strangers. I gave myself a pep talk. Then, like a weird little mole blinking against the blaze of daylight, I went to Mass.
As I approached a pew, one with a sign that said "Please sit here" as opposed to the alternating signs that said "Please leave this pew vacant," I realized something in my bones. Literally, in my creaking knees: I had not genuflected in well over a year. Going to Mass at home, I hadn't even thought about genuflecting. I hadn't followed the traditional Mass cues of standing, sitting and kneeling. The body memory overtook me.
Although masked and distant, I felt the blessing of sharing the air with fellow worshippers. In Zoom Mass, I had virtually been with other Catholics who appeared in small rectangles on my screen. We had tried to pray and sing in unison, but it had been awkward. Here I was now with real people. I got a little teary.
I went to Communion. The priest was rather automatic in placing the Host in my uplifted hands, but he had no way of knowing that this was a marvelous day in my life. He made me realize that my reception of the Eucharist over the years had been just as automatic. Today this moment was precious, extraordinary, miraculous, but perhaps it was because I was different. The many months of abstaining from the sacrament had given me a new reverence for this mystery of Jesus present in my body.
I thought about those remote villages where people only see a priest or receive Communion once a year, or about the homebound folks — some of whom were regulars at my Zoom Mass — who are physically unable to go to church. I thought about the gift we had all taken for granted before the pandemic, that we could go to Mass and receive the Body and Blood of Christ whenever we wanted.
As we emerge from the shelter of our COVID-19 protections, may we be mindful of how easily we can lose the community, the rituals and the treasure of the Eucharist that form the practice of our faith. May we be grateful. May we be a changed people.