Four of us sat in a recently warmed and running car, the driveway shoveled but filling again with December snow. One of my family of five was running late, and our parish, a mere two-minute drive from our home, was preparing for Christmas Eve Mass.
When we finally arrived, the parking lot was full, and we walked unusually far to get to the doors of the Church. Brushing off our winter coats, it was clear there wasn’t space to accomodate all of us together. Old men, the quintessential ushers at St. Matthew’s in Green Bay, held up fingers in ones and twos, indicating a scarcity of seats to the gathering crowd in back. A few bold souls walked confidently up the aisle to claim a spot, but my family resigned to stand for the duration of the Mass, longer than normal for any of our tastes.
Throughout the service, I remember shifting from one foot to the other, my fourth-grade body straining to see anything when the congregation in front of me stood. A woman near me sang with a particularly high-timbre voice, and I tried to figure out how to plug my ears without her noticing. I was miserable. I couldn’t wait for Mass to end, to be back in the comfort of my house. Food and family and presents awaited me. I wanted out of that packed Church.
Churches are empty these days. Even if they open up again soon, the norms of physical distancing will necessarily limit the way that we pray together. No more hugs and handshakes. No more chalices. No more songbooks, holy water fonts, or donuts after Mass. At least, not yet.
On the one hand, the Christian life is a call to courage in the face of death and darkness. That might mean a rejection of what we’re being asked to do in keeping our Churches closed. One could try and make the argument that to fill a Church these days would be a prophetic act. It would be a witness to faith that God alone provides, that a community that prays together does more than mumbling a quiet rosary alone in the safety of our homes. None of that sounds right to me.
On the other hand, my own Christian faith is not ultimately about me – it’s about we – us all, together. In the minutiae of life during this pandemic, every choice I make is rooted in some consideration of the other – washing my hands, wiping counters, not stockpiling essential items that everyone needs, gloving and masking and distancing myself. It’s easy for me to be selfish, and much harder to create a world in which I choose to act beyond my own need for control. In that sense, not going to Church might be prophetic, a witness to the reality that each of us suffers together in these unusual times.
We need one another to be safe, and we need one another to survive. That might mean sacrificing the gift of the communion we experience when we gather in prayer. That might mean opening myself to receive Jesus in different, but not diminished, ways. That sounds more right to me, but not without a deep and lingering sadness.
The vision of empty Churches in my mind troubles me. The vision of a full Church, though, scares me.
A few years ago, 15 Jesuits were ordained to the priesthood in one liturgy at Gesu Church in Milwaukee. I’ve never seen so many people in one Church, and I had the best seat in the house – the choir loft. Looking down over the congregation, those of us above the fray could see that Christmas Eve-like scramble for seats unfold. Immediate families took the place of privilege in pews near the front of the Church, while a hodge-podge of friends, co-workers, and curious wanderers-by huddled together in the back. The liturgy, which is already long, was extended by the sacred rituals of the ordination, and with more-than-typically grand processions and communion distribution, we were pushing three hours together in Church. For some, three hours of standing. When the Mass ended and the newly ordained Jesuits walked out of the Church, the choir sang “O God Beyond All Praising” and the congregation erupted in a loud and extended applause.
In that moment, the only thing that mattered was that we were all there together, packed into a place that served as the setting for an incredible moment of grace and of gift. I can’t recall singing more loudly in all my life.
I long for a full Church again. I long for late arrivals and standing in the back, for strangers pressing together to make room in the pews, for old man ushers pointing out just one more seat.
I, and indeed we, need to keep the fire of longing burning bright enough to make that full Church a reality once again. For now, we pray together in different ways, trusting that all prayer pleases God and draws us more fully into God’s love. For now, I must trust in the words of that sacred song I belted so loudly those years ago, remembering that God is with me, and beyond all praise:
Then hear, O gracious Saviour,
accept the love we bring,
that we who know your favor
may serve you as our king;
and whether our tomorrows
be filled with good or ill,
we’ll triumph through our sorrows
and rise to bless you still:
to marvel at your beauty
and glory in your ways,
and make a joyful duty
our sacrifice of praise.