Exiled: The Church and the Virus
“The world has taken a turn for the surreal”
- Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan
My family and I were alone in Church at 8 a.m. this past Sunday morning. Notice that I said Church…not Mass. Our diocese on Long Island, New York joined with the Archdiocese of New York and cancelled all religious services through Easter because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The announcement left a visceral ache. Decades of faith and belief seemed to have been put on hold. I began to wonder though: what was my faith actually in? I decided to backtrack in time.
Old Testament Jewish history was essentially this: Man fell from grace and out of his right relationship with the Creator; God, in His love for us, planned to re-establish the relationship by choosing the Jews to set an example of how to live - how to follow His will, be in right relationship with Him and thereby attain true happiness and peace. But they failed time and again until finally He let them be overtaken and scattered in exile. When He ultimately brought them back home, they failed again. So God sent His son to show us how to do it. Sound familiar? It should, it’s alluded to in the parable of the wicked tenants in the Synoptic Gospels.
The Son set the example of how to live in accord with the Father; no more scrolls and tablets, no more burnt sacrifices. “Follow me, do as I do, heed my words” and you can live again in right relationship with God as originally designed and created in the beginning. Perfection may not happen here; but He made this world to be perfect so our purpose is to strive for that perfection, to make this as close to the original Eden as possible. (Matthew 5:48). Thus God redeems and restores Paradise and our place in it. He wants to walk with us here and now, not just in the hereafter.
Christ knew that His tutorial on earth would end and that He’d return to the Father. It would be for us to carry on, to continue the redemptive work, to make this the new creation. So Christ gave us the Sacraments as “outward sign[s] instituted by [Him] to give grace.” Familiar every day things such as water, oil, bread and words were used to institute them - to make them accessible for us and strengthen us as we continue the work of redemption. They bring us into the faith and confirm it; they cleanse us in spirit and quite literally feed us; and they bless us in our vocations in life until the end when they help guide us to Our Father.
Yet in a click on the keyboard, they were taken from us for an indefinite time. It’s as if God has exiled us again. Only this time we imposed it from within and upon ourselves, no outside conqueror has dragged us off.
I could go on about the arguments on both sides: some favor the Sacramental ban and cite to the Catechism, 953: we are in communion with each other in our joint suffering during this time; hence, we must all join in the suffering of those who cannot receive due to the illness and we fast together from the Sacraments. On the other side are those who note the example of the brave religious during the Black Death, about 30% of whom died as a result of administering the Sacraments and ministering to the sick. They knew a simple truth: mortality is real, we will die. Do we live and die then by fulfilling our purpose in our Maker’s redemptive plan or do we do so in defiance or indifference thereof? Take your pick.
There is also the eloquent posting on Our Warpath, the updated letter from Uncle Screwtape. It warns of our Sacramental deprivation and its aftermath. Do we become slackards in faith? Do we use this as an excuse to replace His gifts with our own divinations? Do we decide that we can live without them and still find redemption with God? The Old Testament should serve as a stark warning in that regard.
In the end though, the exile is here regardless of my thoughts. But I actually take strength and hopefully wisdom from the Old Testament verses. The Jews, faults and all back then, didn’t want to be exiled either. I’m certain that most went with a horrible sense of being abandoned. Meanwhile though, His plan for their salvation continued unbeknownst to them, in His love which surpasses all understanding (Ephesians 3:19), in the paradox of the cross wherein death leads to eternal life.
For the remainder of Lent and until the prohibition is lifted, my family and I will live in the exile. We will pray, fast, give alms and avail ourselves of the many resources available. And we will await His return with confidence, with patience learned from our Jewish forebears. After all, “We know that all things [emphasis added] work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
“We have nothing, if not belief.”
- Reepicheep, Voyage of the Dawntreader