Saturday, May 16, 2020
SOCIAL distance. . .
The rules placed upon churches, not on businesses with that wide definition of essential, but on churches, have stifled the most important social connection we have on earth – our tie to the pulpit and altar of the Lord’s Word and Sacrament. I have written extensively against the idea that this is an acceptable submission to government and medicine in time of pandemic and do not wish to repeat myself here, however, the cost to the people of God has been greater than we dare admit. We have been taught not only to keep geographic distance from God’s house and our brothers and sisters in Christ but to be suspicious of them and to fear our assembly around His Word and Table. In some states governmental officials have actually encouraged tattletales to inform on those who violate the rules. In others a governor’s order to write down license plates and enforce self-isolation upon those who break the rules has had a chilling effect – even more than the threat from the virus!
No where is this more profound than when it comes to the burial of the dead. That rite is essentially social, at least in the sense of being the corporate rite of the faithful commending the dead to the mercies of God. Because of the physical distancing encouraged or ordered upon the people of God, hundreds and thousands of faithful have died without benefit of a public funeral, without the aid and comfort of mourners who accompany their loved ones in grief and hope, and without benefit of the public witness of the Church to the resurrection of the dead and the gift of everlasting life. I will admit that I do not care all that much about the lives not celebrated – the purpose of the funeral is not to focus simply on the life of the dead but on the One Life that gives hope to those who grieve and a future to those who have died. Instead, we are left with ten people (I assume the corpse does not add into the body count of those allowed to be present). Not even an entire family can assemble.
Death is not the only public rite to suffer. We attended the long scheduled wedding of a neighbor boy who grew up with our own children. The family from out of town was absent and the chairs across the reception only cried out of the pain of celebrating what is essentially a public event as a private family gathering. It was early in the pandemic and I can only imagine how many times it was repeated as people watched on screens or listened to audio tracks or simply visited in thought and prayer a rite joining this man to this woman before the Lord and in joyful acknowledgment of His gift of marriage and family.
We had many baptisms planned but only one of them has taken place as I write. Some were precluded when a neighboring governor forbade his citizens from traveling across the border and others when one or more family members were feared suffering from the virus (they were not) or other reasons. Baptism is not a private act but a public one – even when not many are present. The Church gathers around the font to celebrate what the Word promises and water conveys in the mystery of baptismal new birth. But for many, baptisms, if at all, were small affairs with but the fewest of blood relatives and without the greater assembly of the faithful into which the child was being placed by water and the Spirit. It is a difficult thing to see something so essential delayed because we were not allowed to gather.
Yes, Jesus says “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am with them.” But that is not meant as substitute for the public gatherings those joined together in Christ on the occasion of the burial of the dead or a wedding or a baptism. Jesus’ promise is not designed to give us a choice between a couple of folks and many, but to give the assurance that we are not alone – no matter our surroundings. His words were to give comfort to those times when we could not be together – not when we should not (at least as government and medicine has determined). There is a difference. People making a determination that they cannot attend is far different than a government telling them they cannot.
I long for the day when we can forego that dreaded term and stop looking at those around us as threats to our health and safety. I fear that the physical distancing will affect our social distance in unhealthy ways for a long time to come. Nowhere will this be felt more than in the Church.