As politicians begin to lift restrictions around social distancing, I am hearing calls to put pressure on bishops and metropolitans to open church buildings again. When I discussed this with a friend, she pointed out that God does not need us to be in a church in order to come to us. Look at the example of Pentecost, she said. The apostles were in a house, and the Spirit descended with the sound of a great, rushing wind. Or the first time Jesus came to the apostles after the Resurrection, I added. Jesus appeared despite the doors being locked. God will come to us, not because we are in a church building, but because we desire to be in relationship with Him.
To say that the pandemic altered my prayer life is to grossly understate things. As a theology student, I have more opportunities than the average person to attend liturgies of various kinds. Mass at my own college, daily Matins and Vespers at a Greco-Catholic chapel on campus, Divine Liturgy with an Orthodox mission at another chapel, the odd Coptic or even Anglican service thrown into the mix. All of that came to an abrupt halt and, honestly, I miss it. Still, I am nervous about some of the rhetoric around the need to open our churches again. When we hear people arguing that the churches need to be reopened as soon as possible—or even that the bishops made a mistake in closing them in the first place—because it deprived the people of God’s grace, we need to recognize that there is a problem in how they are conceiving of God’s providence. I do not mean to condemn or berate them here. If anything, I feel an even greater charity towards them.
Fear is a subtle but powerful enemy. In times of danger, we are encouraged to turn to God as our Protector and Shelter. And well we should. Throughout history, in times of personal and communal catastrophe, people have found consolation by going to church. Had the pandemic somehow forced the closure of our society without requiring the closure of our church buildings, I think people could have coped with their fear. The closure of the churches, though, seems to have taken away the one refuge we could rely on. As I see it, the problem is not that the churches are closed, but that we have too narrowly associated the church building with God as our Stronghold. Our fear is amplified because we believe we have been stripped of our protection.
At the moment, I find it more helpful to think of the Body of Christ rather than the Church—although, truly, they refer to the same manifestation of Christ. But thinking of the Body of Christ puts the emphasis back on bodies: on Christ’s Body present in the Eucharist; on the communion of all the faithful in the Body of Christ; on my own responsibility and privilege to embody Christ through my life. We may be separated physically from the Eucharist, but priests around the world continue to pray the Mass. We may be separated physically from our church communities, but the physical separation does not negate the Spirit which knits us together into the Body of Christ. Finally, I may be separated physically from my friends, but I know that through grace I am personally joined to God and to all the faithful. The Church continues to exist and thrive because these bodies are still active in the world.
Underlying each of these incarnations of the Body of Christ is love. The universe exists because of God’s love for all Creation; the Church exists because of Christ’s love for humanity; and we respond to God with love. The fear that I mentioned before is not overcome by going to a church building but by clinging to the God who is Love. We can do that no matter where we find ourselves. The physical location is much less important than the assurance that, when we turn to God out of love for Him, we will find Him already present and loving us.
This does not mean that we can discount our liturgies altogether. The act of gathering to worship God has been integral to the Christian faith from its very beginning and is the prime location for learning and experiencing the love of God. No, the liturgical celebrations of our Church are necessary to our faith as a whole and we should rejoice to celebrate them as often as we reasonably can. What this pandemic has proven, to me at least, is that these celebrations are not the only way that we meet God.
We have to remember that God desires to come to us. In the Garden of Eden, God visited Adam and Eve in the evening and walked with them. The Ark of the Covenant and later the Temple were constructed so God could dwell with His People. The Incarnation is nothing less than God living with us as one of us. The Spirit descended on the apostles, and is present in each of us today. The biblical witness is that God draws near because the faithful are in relationship with Him. The fact that the church buildings have been closed has forced me to take a greater responsibility for my half of that relationship. An abundance of liturgies made it easy for me to think of my mere presence at liturgy as relationship with God. In contrast, the complete absence of “live” liturgies has pushed me into a richer experience with God than I have ever known. Being deprived of church has only highlighted God’s loving presence. In addition, my inability to gather with others in prayer has made me even more aware of the spiritual communion between all believers. We are not united because we are worshipping in the same space, but because we are in loving relationship with God and, through Him, with each other.
The Church does not cease to exist when we walk out of the church building any more than I cease to be Christian once the liturgy is done. If anything, the fact that the liturgy is over makes it even more important that we make ourselves aware of God’s omnipresent love. The pandemic is just the time between two Sundays when we experience God’s presence in ways that are less tangible than the Eucharist. The only difference now is that the Sundays are a bit further apart. Thankfully God’s love is still with us and, I would suggest, maybe even a little bit closer.
See our Archives 2020 for other articles in our Coronavirus/Faith in a Time of Pandemic series and our Call for Articles if you would like to write for it.
Meghan Bowen is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Regis College in the University of Toronto. Her research examines the marriage theology of St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine as a means of advancing current theological discussions of marriage and sexual ethics. She holds a BMus in Piano Performance from Mount Allison University in Sackville NB, an MA in Theology from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, and an MA in Ethnomusicology from Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. She is a practicing Roman Catholic who routinely engages with Orthodox liturgy and theology as a means of interrogating her own faith tradition.