Within a matter of days, nay almost in the twinkling of an eye, an unprecedented season of eerie disorientation has descended upon us, not only in North America and Western Europe, but even across most of the globe. With children absent from their schools and an overwhelming majority of adults no longer permitted to show up at their places of work, the majority of the population are expected to remain in or close to their residences, at any rate in Canada still being permitted to sally forth for exercise along deserted streets and in (some but not all) public parks, their other journeyings increasingly restricted to needed trips to supermarkets and pharmacies. With devastating economic collapse happening in slow motion before our eyes, one wonders how long the public purse can sustain an inactive and largely sedentary citizenry. And while after a month of lockdown the streets for the most part remain as quiet as on a Scottish Sabbath in the heyday of Calvinism, one wonders whether public order can be preserved in the long run. Indeed, the United States has seen spirited mass protests against the abrupt suspension of historic liberties, such as the right of free association. For centuries past North American political culture has balanced its grasp of the responsibilities of the governed with a corresponding emphasis on their rights, a delicate equilibrium sorely disturbed by the rise of identity politics over the past two generations. While earning a living for oneself and one’s family has self-evidently belonged under the rubric of basic rights, such labour is obviously an urgent and ongoing responsibility, an imperative necessity apart from which civilisation, indeed human communal life as such, cannot long endure. For the first time in the life of the nations of this continent, the able-bodied are not permitted to toil for their own and their dependants’ sustenance.
Those born over the last three decades tend to suffer from a disabling historical amnesia. We who attained adulthood before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall going on 31 years ago recall the life-suppressing, soul-destroying reality of Communism, which was the most brutal of the three forms of totalitarianism that marred the visage of the 20th century. The generation intoxicated by the multifaceted rebelliousness of the 1960s sobered up to some extent as the wiser among them heeded the testimony of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as delivered not only in his powerful novels but also and supremely in the accounts of State-inflicted woe recorded in the three volumes of his Gulag Archipelago. Then came the “fall of the wall” and the seeming evaporation of Soviet Communism. In a famous essay Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history” in the shape of the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy, as politicians gloated in the arrival of a so-called “peace dividend,” which remarkably failed to deliver its goods as the United States led coalitions of nations in a series of wars in the Middle East. By the end of the second decade of the 20th century, Fukuyama’s end of history had degenerated into the replacement of liberty by licence and in the collapse of historic moral order in the body politic. Thirty years ago Marxism seemed a discredited and failed force, but the generation that rejoiced over the dismantling of the sombre menace posed by the Soviet Union forgot the call of the 1968er Rudi Dutschke for a “long march through the institutions,” a process that has borne rotten fruit in the academic, media, and political elites who now rule the roost in much of global public life. As governments have assumed and exercised emergency powers while their societies tremble over the adverse effects of a virulent infection, the stage seems set for the seizure of power by unsavoury totalitarian forces.
More troubling than the dire economic and possibly political effects of the State-orchestrated shutdown enacted during the third week in Lent 2020 has been the overnight demise of public worship in our midst. Diocletian would surely look agog at the churches’ willingness to cancel outright or at least massively restrict their customary assemblies for divine service; he after all encountered stout resistance in many places to his order to cease and desist from public Christian worship, even though such disobedience to his imperial orders led to many martyrdoms. Granted, the churches were not at least initially singled out for special pressure as State authorities have mandated the limitation of social gatherings—to an upper head count of 5 in the Province of Ontario, 10 in the States of Iowa and Indiana, and—to go by the data available on the afternoon of Laetare Sunday—a maximum of 2 in Angela Merkel’s Germany. Moreover, no demand has been made that the churches surrender their sacred sacramental vessels and Scriptures to those vested with civil authority over us. But the abrupt casting of the “free exercise of religion” in its necessary form of public worship as a “non-essential” service to the citizenries north and south of the US-Canadian border has failed to elicit loud and impassioned protest on the part of the clergy and laity of the various confessions and denominations that make up the Christendom of this continent. As Quasimodogeniti Sunday rolled around, Chancellor Angela Merkel had announced her government’s intention to permit the reopening of schools and most shops in early May, while indicating that the ban on the public liturgical life of the churches would remain in place. And yet, given the catastrophic fall in church attendance, gatherings for worship are now among the safest of social assemblies: a congregation of between 50 to 100 (oftentimes many fewer!) persons can easily practise social distancing in spaces designed for several times those numbers! It remains to be seen whether, in the rest of Western Europe and in North America, the churches will lag behind other institutions in being beckoned to resume their place in public life.
The Incarnation of the Eternal Word in the man Jesus of Nazareth at a particular time and in a particular place irrevocably renders the Christian religion historically specific and causes its distinctive, actually grace-imparting practices to involve flesh and blood human interaction: there is no ministry without ministers, and the Holy Spirit uses those ministers to incorporate and sustain people in Christ by the inescapably bodily rituals of baptism and Eucharist, not to mention the laying on of hands in confirmation and ordination and the laudable apostolically mandated practice of anointing the sick. A “virtual” Christianity is a defective Christianity, a ghost of the Church instituted by Christ as an assembly of people that needs must surface in the public arena.
To my best knowledge, the Roman Catholic bishops of Canada have prohibited public worship, denying their people access to the Eucharist and other sacraments; south of the border the cardinal archbishop of Chicago is even reported as having forbidden the administration of emergency baptism without his express permission! Since when have even the highest-ranking bishops been authorised to subvert the clear and abiding mandates of Christ our Lord? Meanwhile, public worship has become a thing of the past in most of the parishes of Lutheran Church—Canada, with only a few pastors celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar in their churches for small groups, as is explicitly permitted by the public authorities. One brother in Ontario has celebrated the Eucharist seven times on one Sunday for registered groups of four communicants, and I rejoice that my ordained sons-in-law in Iowa are likewise engaging in multiple Sunday celebrations at their altars, in their cases being permitted to serve groups of ten, including themselves.
Our current situation of closed churches across the length and breadth of this vast continent, with liturgical celebrations for permitted minimum numbers few and far between, strikes me as eerily akin to the famous or rather infamous occasions when medieval popes placed entire kingdoms and other sovereign territories under Interdict in situations where the local ruler had defied the pope’s will. One thinks of Julius II placing the republic of Venice under interdict when its rulers resisted his invading armies by military means. When King John declined to accept Innocent III’s nomination of Stephen Langton to the see of Canterbury, the pope’s wrath entailed not only the excommunication of the king but also the severe restriction of access to the means of grace among his people:
“The interdict of 1208 decreed that no services were to be held in the parish churches. The Mass was allowed in monasteries—but only behind closed doors. Infants could not be baptized except at home or in the church porch; the dead could not be buried in consecrated ground; the living could not receive Holy Communion except at the point of death; church bells were silent” (David Edwards, Christian England: Its Story to the Reformation, 130).
The Great Interdict of 2020, whose end is not yet in sight and whose long-term consequences remain to be seen, appears to have come about through a combination of pressure on the part of the civil authorities and over-hasty compliance on the part of their ecclesiastical counterparts. Our swift retreat from public space and its concomitant overwhelming dropping of the Sacrament of the Altar from the life of the Church contrasts strikingly with the attitude taken by a minority among the church in Abitinae in North Africa at the time of the persecution unleashed by Emperor Domitian. On the verge of his surprise abdication, this ruler, who would rank among the greatest of the Caesars had he not unleashed massive persecution upon the Church, issued a decree on 24 February 303 ordering the churches across the empire to cease and desist from public worship and to hand over the Scriptures and the sacred vessels to the civil authorities. Bishop Fundanus of Abitinae succumbed to pressure, committed apostasy, and surrendered the Scriptures. A plucky minority of his flock remained within their baptismal grace and continued (clandestinely, they thought) to meet for the regular Sunday Eucharist under the leadership of the priest Saturninus. A group of 49 were caught as it were in flagrante delicto as they assembled for their chaste sacramental union with Christ, brought under arrest to Carthage, tortured, put on trial and swiftly executed on 12 February 304. Saturninus’ four children, including his infant son, stood steadfast in loyalty to Christ, sharing the martyr’s crown with their father. (Saturninus’ infant son tells against the thesis of Roman Catholics of the Ratzinger stamp who maintain that, while married men received ordination in the patristic Church, they were expected to live continently, no longer engaging in marital relations with their wives—but that’s a story for another day). When asked by the interrogating judge why they had defied Diocletian’s orders, one of the 49 martyrs of Abitinae gave a reply that rings through all subsequent centuries of the Church, delivering a powerful message not least to our own time and place: “Sine dominicis non possumus—Without the Eucharist/Divine Service we can’t get by.” Dominicis is the dative plural of the adjective dominicus-a-um, having the sense of “the things of the Lord.” Sometimes and not inaccurately translated as “Mass,” it has a wider meaning that, but certainly includes as a non-negotiable minimum the Eucharist. The prevailing attitude among professing Christians in North America and Western Europe at this time appears to be a lukewarm “Sine dominicis bene possumus—We can get by quite easily without the Eucharist.”
But, as we all stand before the searching gaze of Christ our Lord, can this alteration of the reply that sent the martyrs of Abitinae to their earthly doom stand the scrutiny of the One who has laid on us the unqualified mandate, expressed in the present infinitive τοῦτο ποιεῖτε/“This do”? This command is issued by a higher Sovereign than those earthly potentates who have police forces and all manner of earthly coercion at their disposal. Should they strip us of liberty, they can certainly impose a eucharistic fast on captive Christians, but if congregational members request the Blessed Sacrament at this time, their pastors would impose eucharistic famine upon them by not complying with their petitions. And if any were to maintain that the possibility of transmitting or receiving the coronavirus is a horror so dire that it precludes any manner of public worshipping assembly or eucharistic celebration, it might be pointed out that the nasty flu that originated in Wuhan, China, and that can prove deadly to certain susceptible groups, bears no comparison with the decades-long plague that ravaged Justinian’s empire in the 6th century or with the Black Death that reduced the population of Europe by a third in the middle of the 14th century. Should we be governed by fear of the coronavirus, public life would necessarily grind to a halt in almost all its dimensions for years to come, proving that the remedy of lockdown will turn out to be a worse fate than the disease it is supposed to withstand. Moreover, there is no strength in the argument that we should refrain from public sacramental participation until such time as the whole worshipping community can safely reassemble: the Lord said something about being present where two or three assemble in His name, and it looks to me as though He celebrated His Eucharist for a congregation of only two at the evening meal in Emmaus. The size of worshipping assemblies is a variable that the clergy are powerless to determine.
So should anyone from our neighbourhood ring my doorbell in these days in quest of pastoral care, would not my ordination vows oblige me to supply it, even if it involved coming into bodily contact with someone gravely ill with the infection that has ground the world to a halt? I know of no convincing argument to the contrary. And should a brother in office, fatigued at the need to celebrate the Eucharist seven times on a Sunday, ask me to divide these duties with him, would I have the right to refuse? As a sturdy 67 year-old in rude health, I think not. May the Lord cause us all to reflect on the testimony of the martyrs of Abitinae, take it to heart, and adopt it as our motto in this bleak hour: “Sine dominicis non possumus—Without the Eucharist/Divine Service we can’t get by.”