My sisters and brothers in Christ,
The Third Sunday in Lent this year will be the first Sunday most of us will ever have known of not being able to join in worship with our community in our church.
The entire week just past has felt like running on a treadmill at increasing speed, trying to balance between the emerging facts on the one hand, and the desire of all of us to carry on as before without giving over our routines and our practices of gathering together for Sunday worship. It seems like ages ago I was consulting with as many colleagues as I could before sending out guidance on how to modify our liturgical practice to account for the very real dangers posed by the high communicability of the coronavirus. Just hours after sending out that notice, our churches in whole countries—Italy and Belgium, and now larger gatherings in France—were simply closed outright. More of this will surely come.
Being people of faith in such a moment does not mean discounting or disregarding the wisdom of scientists. On the contrary, it means taking very seriously the warnings of public health officials to observe the practice of social distancing. It also means, as difficult as it is for all of us, abiding by the decisions of civil authorities to close houses of worship when they are issued—because doing so is a very clear expression of the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
There are two things in particular about this moment that trouble our souls. One is the sense of losing control over our decisions. If something is going to be taken away from us—especially our freedom to gather in community with our fellow disciples—we expect to be given the right to give our consent.
The second—which I’ll confess is the hardest one for me—is the confrontation this all brings with our hubris. The fact is that none of us, in this moment, can exempt ourselves from the reality of how this disease spreads. (If you think about it, at least in this way the virus is not unlike the reality of our human fallenness; we don’t much like that, either.) We may feel the warnings are overblown, we may feel that we are healthy and no risk to anyone else—and what we feel does not change the realities of this pandemic. We can, in fact, have this disease without knowing it, and spread it whether or not we believe we are doing so. And especially in churches, the people with whom we share it may be least able to recover from it, whether physically or economically.
The story we share together, in all of the communities that make up our Convocation, begins and ends with the same words: “Do not be afraid.” Those are the words with which the angels greet the shepherds tending their flocks on Christmas night; those are the words with which Jesus greets Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning.
We often hear those words as words of comfort. But they are not. They are words of command. Followers of Christ give no quarter to fear. We are meant to be too focused, too determined, too intent on walking the Way of Love—caring for the sick, binding up the broken, defending the defenseless, forgiving the sinners. Christians cannot waste time on fear.
So take the unexpected freedom of this time as a gift. Use it to pray. Use it to reflect on what we miss when we miss the fellowship we create as communities of faith. Use it to check in on your friends—especially those you are most worried about. Use it to risk the possibility of contemplative prayer—a time of quiet, a time of opening our hearts fully to God, a time of listening for the still, small voice.