It’s Palm Sunday 2020, and we celebrated in this coronavirus time of self-isolation by hanging some palm-like flora on our door, and enjoying the glorious sunshine of the afternoon, and checking in with virtual religious celebrations. But it felt a little empty.
In Craig Morgan’s country hit “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” he walks you through the cheerful quiet Sundays of churchgoing people. He describes congregants singing “Amazing Grace,” then later clipping coupons from the newspaper and cat-napping on the porch.
It’s a joyful song that celebrates the experiences of the nearly 40% of Americans who attend religious services every week.
Count me among them. And during these days of social distancing and closed doors, I miss church.
This has come as a surprise to me because for many years now, I’ve embraced the idea that church is something of an artificial construct. We should practice our Christianity, live it, and it shouldn’t require a building, a gathering place, for us to feel at one with God.
I’ve especially contemplated this idea as I watch churches big and small struggling with declining memberships and rising costs. Is it really necessary to maintain all those buildings, all that staff?
Well, yes, it is. That’s the lesson this coronavirus isolation is teaching me.
If I were to rewrite Mr. Morgan’s song, in fact, I’d talk about the things I miss about Sundays. I miss gathering together with like-minded souls. I miss singing hymns with them. I miss the smiles, the catching up on news, the gentle and often unseen gestures of help for those in need.
And, above all, I miss Communion. Not just the “mystic, sweet communion” we sing about in “The Church’s One Foundation.” I miss the sacrament.
No matter how distracted I might be through the readings, the sermon, the prayers, or the announcements, when I kneel at the altar rail for Communion, my mind and heart shift gears. After receiving the host, I experience a peace…that passes all understanding. Sometimes I mentally articulate a prayer of petition. Sometimes, my petitions seem like a cloud of incense floating up to God that require no translation for Him to understand.
Virtual services can capture some of the sense of community lost by actually bestirring ourselves to go to a church building. I’ve particularly enjoyed some Morning Prayer liturgies offered by a Harrisburg church that are intimate and yet inclusive as the officiants read off prayer petitions they are seeing appear on the screen during the service.
While these are wonderful ways to stay in touch with church, even allowing us to sample an array of approaches to liturgies, they always feel to me as if something is missing.
Communion is missing. The actual sacrament and the real gathering of fellow believers.
Our local bishop has reminded us that armed forces personnel might miss the sacrament regularly. She posted a message last week that included the prayer from the Armed Forces’ Prayer Book for when you cannot attend worship. It includes these words:
In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated…
I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving.
What a beautiful prayer. I’ll cherish it even as I yearn for the times when we can gather at church.
What I miss about Sundays, though, is that artificial construct, that building where we gather, and the people who work to make communion as special as it should be.
When this period of isolation ends, I hope I never take it for granted again.