On Palm Sunday I went to Mass in Chicago, even though I live 2,000 miles away. As I watched the livestreamed Sunday liturgy from a seat at my kitchen table, I saw that 5,400 other devices were doing the same thing. That’s at least 5,400 Catholics from all over the country at one Mass. We were gathered in community in the time of coronavirus in a virtual holy place.
The Gospel that day was the reading of Christ’s Passion according to John, describing the betrayal and arrest and trial and execution of Jesus. In all the years I’ve gone to Mass on Palm Sunday and heard the Passion reading, I have never before cried at the death of Jesus. The part that got me was when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, to which Pilate acquiesced. “They took the body of Jesus,” writes John, “and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to Jewish burial custom.” (John 19:40)
The body. I was suddenly overcome by the thought of how the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of the gift of accompanying our gravely ill loved ones to their death, of sitting with them, of praying with them, of anointing them, of honoring the new life represented by the now-lifeless body. This cruel virus does not allow for any physical closeness with the sick and dying, or funeral gatherings for the dead.
Just as it denies us the chance to assemble and worship together in bodily proximity. Can a religious community survive social distancing and self-isolating? Will we faithful return to the pews after quarantining for weeks or months? We’ll find out.
There are, of course, those controversial figures calling for continuing large in-person religious services in spite of the pandemic. Perhaps they feel compelled to challenge God to protect the chosen ones who show up on Sunday against public health mandates, or perhaps they are focused on the uninterrupted passing of the collection plate. But the reality on the ground is that the virus doesn’t care if we are devout. God loves us all, but surely God is counting on us to behave with intelligence, sensitivity, and grace: It seems the best way to show our devotion to God and to others is to keep ourselves apart.
What we feel we should be doing — getting out, praying together, helping others — is, paradoxically, not what we should be doing. We may feel fine, but someone else’s immune system may not have the strength to fight the germs we may be spreading before we know we are sick. Gathering could be deadly for some, even if not for us. So, staying home from church these days, church at the kitchen table, is the soul of charity.
The online way we must practice our religion right now is new and uncomfortable, but there is nothing new about human suffering, such as that depicted in the Passion of Jesus. “My soul is sorrowful even to death,” says Jesus as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:28), which again calls to mind those afflicted with COVID-19, and those laboring to treat the infected, and those mourning the loss of loved ones. Like Jesus, we quarantined faithful may feel bleak and abandoned. Like Jesus, we turn to God as we look for courage and hope.
But as alone as we may feel against the virus, we face it in strange solidarity. I recently wore a homemade mask to the grocery store, and I smiled at a fellow shopper as we kept our distance from each other. Then I realized what a fool I was, since wearing a mask would render a smile invisible. But then another masked person smiled at me, and I knew this because of the smiling eyes I encountered above the mask. Community is wherever we find it, and wherever we forge it. We are in this pandemic together, even if we stay socially distant. We can gather in our hearts if not in person.
And just to prove that something normal remains in our new virtual church, the priest in Chicago on Palm Sunday noted with dry humor that even at Mass online, people still left right after Communion. Some things will never change.