Keeping Our Clothes On

As I write, we are about three weeks into the second stage of the “Coronatide” season. By the time you are reading this, most or all of Illinois is probably in Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan, with groups up to fifty permitted to gather, and indoor seating allowed in bars and restaurants, with appropriate distancing and masks. Most of the Eucharistic Communities of the Diocese of Springfield have resumed some form of in-person worship–of course, under highly restrictive conditions. This is not the beginning of the end, but it is arguably the end of the beginning.

COVID-19 precautions will be with us for several months to come. We will be wearing masks and maintaining a space between those who do not already live under the same roof for at least the balance of this calendar year. I’m hoping that we might be able to find a safe way to restore some level of congregational and choral singing at some point in the next few weeks, but I’m still gathering information on that subject.

Ever since the shutdown descended on us with a bang in mid-March, we have had to grope our way through this crisis with a great deal of improvisation. I am greatly gratified by the impressive and tenacious creativity demonstrated by our clergy and lay leaders throughout the diocese as we have sought to temporarily re-invent the look and feel and warp and woof of our common life. Not being able to come together in our church buildings for the celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day has required us to re-examine and re-think our very sense of identity as a Christian community. We’re not sure who we even are if don’t at least have the ability to be at Mass on Sunday.

Some good has come of this already. Patterns of keeping in touch with people, especially those who were already homebound before we all were and/or those who live alone have been made more robust. There is solid anecdotal evidence that the daily offices are being prayed more faithfully by more people than has perhaps been the case in the entire history of the Episcopal Church. There have been important teaching opportunities, especially around the (not always obvious) distinction between the celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion. We have thought through issues of worship and community and sacramental life in ways that would not have otherwise occurred to us. We have become more adept at using technology (like Facebook Live and Zoom) that will probably continue even after we are able to resume normal patterns of church life.

Part of this ferment has caused some to question the value of many tokens of communal Christian practice such as church buildings and furnishings, sacred art, and even the central necessity of the Eucharist itself.  While these questions are perhaps all worth pondering, I’m reminded of the standard advice that policy decisions–or theological views, for that matter–should not be formulated in reaction to exceptional circumstances. I suppose there is a theoretical outside possibility that this particular novel coronavirus is a slowly-unfolding “black swan” event through which a providential God brings a conclusion to human history, and that the “life of the world to come” is a relatively imminent experience for all of us. It seems more likely, though, that, like all other epidemics, this one will wind itself down, one way or another, and exit the stage. Life will doubtless be inflected in some subtle ways, but we will largely return to the status quo ante.

With such a presumption, then, we can profitably reflect on the intricately complex but unified system that is the Church, the Body of Christ. If the baptized members of the Church make up the actual body, then might we suppose that this body is clothed?  Our buildings, our beautiful altars and sanctuaries, our icons and paintings and stained glass and statues, our cemeteries and columbaria, the literal “fabric” of our enfleshed discipleship, constitute the apparel with which the Body of Christ is clothed. So … yes, we do need these things. They act as a social lubricant, both for our benefit and the benefit of those whom we encounter in the world. In the hierarchy of revelation, Christ himself is the sacrament of God. This, in and of itself, answers the question about the necessity of the Eucharist. It establishes the “sacramental principle, that God chooses to communicate himself via sacramental means. This makes the Church the sacrament of Christ. The actions we call “sacraments,” then, are the sacraments of the Church. The material fabric of church life “clothes” the sacraments in apparel appropriate to the occasion.

In the larger economy of grace, it all works together: the “human resources” of the Church, together with her “material resources,” present a “clothed” Body of Christ to the world. Part of the Church’s beauty is that she has a variety of different “outfits,” from the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica to the humble simplicity of the “little brown church in the wildwood,” and everything in between. The need to find our way through the time of the virus has cut us off from our wardrobe. It is “meet and right” that we be about re-familiarizing ourselves with it. We want to be well-dressed, after all!

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Fr H July 21, 2020, 5:08 pm

    Very well done, Good and Faithful Servant. Thanks for a sensible hope.

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