Lockdowns, we are told by the State of California, will be lifted on Tuesday, June 15. But I fear the fear remains locked into many hearts, a place where it has found a home, fed by fear and led by fear. The lockdowns have robbed us of time, talent, and treasure, have isolated us from family and parish, have done incredible harm to each one of us.
Most of my Sundays these last fifteen months have been sheltered ones, tuning in with my husband to Facebook and Zoom screens. We watched and listened. We sang songs and repeated responses and prayed prayers, as if we were heard through the screens, our voices carried by invisible angels of mercy. Some of the liturgies were masked, then unmasked, then masked again. Some got off to a rocky start, taking several months to upgrade equipment and signal boosters (a challenge in Berkeley). Some were outdoors, in courtyards, such as our Arizona parish and in the dead of winter those blue blue blue skies were welcome on our screens. Some kept the organ playing; some didn’t. Some teetered toward a semblance of the Eucharist we all know and love. They all did their best, given the mandate to close down.
Each parish, each Mass, had its own character or personality, a quality I have long enjoyed in our travels through Europe, visiting churches and abbeys and monasteries, each one different, the Mass always the same, yet each a living breathing incarnation of God’s love, his magnificent acts in history.
It is those acts in history, the first years of the first millennium, that we re-member in the Mass, and it is those salvific works that we eat and drink at the altar rail, embodying the mysteries of the universe living in the bread and the wine.
And so today I considered the value of symbol, of word as symbol, of musical note as symbol, representations of a greater truth or truths for which we all hunger, our longing coming from somewhere deep within. I considered these things on the periphery of my delight, my lingering joy as I drove home from our chapel in Berkeley.
I realized that the screens are a poor representation of the Body of Christ, and that the purpose of the living gathering, with real people in real time in real space, kneeling on real cushions, praying to the Real Presence in the tabernacle, was to embody the love of God. We meet together, a disparate gathering from all walks of life, many races and backgrounds, to worship the real and living God of Abraham and Isaac, who became one of us as Jesus of Nazareth, and who loves us beyond measure. I experienced the real thundering notes of the real organ behind me (five feet away in this intimate chapel), the real action of the Mass celebrated by a real priest, sung and chanted, sending real notes into real ears. I felt the real hard tiles under the real velvet cushion under my bony knees and the gentle ache of my back, unused to such posture.
Our preacher preached on the wedding feast parable and all the excuses that are made not to come to the feast. I recommend tuning in to the tape still on Facebook (St. Joseph’s Chapel) to hear what he said, words that expressed ideas and imperatives that made sense. For we must answer the invitation to the feast of the Eucharist, if we are at all able, in person. We must gather with our fellows and sing together as one voice, uniting many voices. We must praise together with the Gloria and repent together with the General Confession. We must kneel together as the precious words are spoken and the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We must pray together, out loud, prayers that are prescribed for the very reason of saying them together as one, an anthem of heart and soul raised to the altar, to the Real Presence of Christ who enters each of us on this bright warm morning in a small chapel near the university.
It usually strikes me during one of our Anglican liturgies, when I am physically present in the nave, the diversity, the many differences among us. I have come to believe that Christ continually creates us, and recreates us, his brush strokes adding something here, something there, to the canvas of our person, spirit and flesh. He does this if we engage in the greatest love affair of all time and all eternity, the love between each of us and God. He does this if we allow him to order our goings, to prepare the path for us to walk on, to enter our hearts and minds, to accept gladly our invitation to accept his invitation to live in one another. He does this if we say yes as Mary did.
And so our priest (who is half Chinese and half African-American) spoke without notes from the head of the aisle before the altar, his eyes twinkling in love for each of us. He was so joyful as he spoke I wondered if he might burst into laughter, but instead he simply enjoyed us, each one of us, sitting in our spaced folding chairs, rapt. I found at one point I laughed out loud myself, enjoying his enjoyment. He moved from the Gospel parable to St. John and another passage on loving one another. We must love one another, he said, and we cannot do this looking into screens.
I sighed my thanksgivings. He was right. And meeting the challenge in parish life is rather like meeting the challenge in any group of devoted people. Each one of us has opinions about masks and sheltering and hoaxes and what we have gone through in the last year plus. Each one of us has thoughts we would like to express that might not be another’s thoughts. There even may be some strong disagreement, some hissing, some biting of tongues. But that is because we are so very different with each passing day, month, and year as the Master works his will upon us in this great creative dance of life.
So we learn to love one another, differences and all, a beautiful diversity. We learn to love in the greatest school of charity (love), the Church. The English mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote a short book called The School of Charity. She was speaking of the family as I recall, and here too we learn to love those under our roof, those whom close proximity provides a challenge. But the parish is also a school of charity and we must attend liturgies in person in order to fully partake of the lessons to be learned. When we stumble, we are raised up by others, held by others. When they stumble we raise them up. We listen to one another. We see the intricate complexity of each person, glimpses of their true hearts and souls. We learn to love as one before Christ in the tabernacle, as we use symbol and song to express the inexpressible.
Our nation is a school of charity as well. It is a parish of individuals that come together to love one another in spite of our differences. We love one another also through symbol and song, through high-flying flags, through pledges of allegiance intoned together, hand upon heart. We have stories that tell our history, just as our faith is told in Epistle and Gospel, and in the Nicene Creed. As Americans, united under one flag in one nation, we gather at appointed times to renew our love for one another and our freedoms – at Thanksgiving, on Memorial Day, on the Fourth of July, on Veterans Day, and many other celebrations of who we are as a free people.
Flag Day, tomorrow, June 14, is often neglected. The flag, with its increasing number of stars over the years, reminds us that we are Americans, a union of many peoples and states and tribes. Our differences, the flag says, are our glories. Our unique populations from all over the planet, have chosen this land, this nation, in which to live and in which to love. The many differences we see all around us are why we are the envy of the world. For we are called by symbol and song, and story too, to love one another, to celebrate our human worth.
Our nation, like our church, has a calendar of seasons, and these seasons call us in real time to be a union and not a disunion, to heal and to not hurt. Memorial Day steps into Flag Day and Flag Day prepares us for Independence Day, July 4. The men and women who gave their lives defending our nation, did so under our flag, and we sense them watching over us as we celebrate the anniversary of the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, the flag billowing against the blue sky, for the Declaration declared our national creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thirteen colonies, each one vastly different from the others, signed the Declaration. Each one would have to learn to get along, learn to love in this national school of love.
The Declaration was a piece of parchment with markings on it. It was words that symbolized deeply held convictions. Just so we today, in our little chapel, declared deeply held convictions about the nature of man.
And so we learn to love one another, to welcome all to the feast.