Friends and colleagues in professional ministry have used that word over and over to describe the situation we now face, that is, the closure of church buildings along with other public gathering places. And it’s true: nothing in seminary prepared us for this. Congregations and synods, if they are responsible, have contingency plans for floods, fires, and other unforeseen circumstances, but none of us can remember sitting down and thinking, “Now, what would happen if a pandemic breaks out that forces physical social isolation and closes down our buildings for an extended period of time?” This is new to all of us.
But is it unprecedented?
One hundred years ago, in late 1917 or early 1918 (it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact origin), a new strain of influenza spread around the world. It soon gained the name “Spanish Flu” because, while it was spreading around the world during World War I, allied powers censored reporting of it to maintain morale. Spain was neutral in the war however, so reports on the epidemic in Spain soon took center stage.
It took a long time for the world to recognize the seriousness of the epidemic. But the disease sharply spiked in October 2018, prompting cities, states, and countries to take more decisive action.
Cities like Indianapolis, IN; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia, PA (although Philadelphia’s late response contributed to a skyrocketing mortality rate) all ordered social distancing measures to be put in place similar to what we’re now experiencing: the closing of non-essential businesses, quarantines in houses, schools shutting down, and so on. This included churches, who were either asked or outright ordered to suspend worship services. Even outdoor services were prohibited.
Yes, one hundred years ago, the church experienced exactly what we are experiencing now: closing down and suspending worship during a pandemic.
Churches back then faced the same difficulties we’re facing. For nearly all of its history, the church has been defined as a group of people connected and gathered together. When everyone couldn’t gather together in one place, they gathered together in multiple places. When circumstances prevented some from gathering, the church went to them to provide care and the sacraments. When persecution meant punishment, imprisonment, or death for those who clung to their faith, they met in secret, away from public eyes. The church has always been physically connected in some way. Rarely has the church had to exist when physical contact was impossible on such a massive scale.
This is one of those rare times, a pandemic of a highly contagious disease like the Spanish Flu or COVID-19. Physically gathering together and coming into contact with each other is dangerous and occasionally fatal. The disease can spread between people who haven’t even touched, carried in the respiratory droplets on the air expelled from their lungs. Even the bubonic plague that caused the Black Death in the fourteenth century CE spread primarily through flea bites and not from person to person, which allowed priests like Martin Luther to remain in their cities and towns to minister to the sick and dying.
When the disease is as contagious as Spanish Flu or COVID-19, the precautions that Luther and others took simply aren’t enough. Physical isolation is required to slow the spread of of the disease. And so the church finds itself in a position it’s not prepared for.
We are at least better equipped to continue being church together during times of isolation. I’ve written before about the power of online communities. Technology allows us to communicate instantly by cell phone and the Internet. For many people, such contact provides the only real, safe, live-giving social interaction in their lives.
The church can leverage this contact in its ministry. There’s no reason it shouldn’t at all times. Technology is an effective transmitter of the Word in written and aural forms. It can be a means of providing pastoral care and counselling. The sound of another’s voice relieves loneliness. Anything visual and aural can be communicated effectively through technology, which covers a wide swath of the church’s mission.
That technology cannot, however, provide the physical connection to the church. By its very nature, physical isolation removes physical contact and connection. Short of two people donning hazmat suits and touching hands, transmitting heat and sensation to one another through a barrier that will keep them safe from infection, there’s not a lot of ways to effectively transmit the physical connection of the church when physical contact is off the table. This presents a daunting problem for the church, one that bishops, priests, pastors, deacons, and lay leaders are struggling to solve.
We call Sacraments rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added.Philip Melanchthon, “Apology of the Augsburg Confession”, 1530
Lutherans describe three characteristics that distinguish the two sacraments from other sacramental acts. A sacrament:
- Is an act commanded by Christ Jesus,
- Carries with it the promise of grace, and
- Unites the command and grace as the Word to a physical element.
This is why the sacraments are never celebrated apart from the Word and the physical element. In Holy Baptism we hear God’s command to “go and baptize”. We hear the promise of grace that comes through baptism. And then we experience that Word joined to the water. In Holy Communion we hear God’s command to eat, drink, and “do this”. We hear the promise of grace that comes through that communion. And then we experience that Word joined to the bread and wine. The sacraments always include the shared physical element. They are also always done in community. No pastor consecrates and celebrates the Holy Communion alone, and no one consumes it alone. Likewise, no one baptizes themself. The sacraments are always administered communally, even if that community is two people.
Celebrating the sacraments during a pandemic presents some serious challenges. Because they are always celebrated communally and involve a shared physical element, there is always some shared physical continuity. Consecrated elements are shared in the physically gathered assembly, and then physically brought from the assembly to those who could not attend. Water physically covers a person. How to celebrate the sacraments during times of mandated physical isolation is challenging at best.
Churches have found all sorts of novel ways to approach this dilemma. With Holy Baptism, one could go to a wide body of water and have the candidate and the one administering the baptism stand far enough apart that the risk of infection is minimal. Or one could bless water in a hose and spray it on someone. It sounds like fun, and I might try it some day, just for laughs (maybe). This isn’t really possible when everyone is confined to their homes, however.
Holy Communion is another beast. Because COVID-19 is so contagious, the risk of contaminating the elements or the person carrying them is significant. Any sort of transportation of the physical elements is dangerous–even the individually packaged wafers and wine could have contamination on the packaging. Suddenly, what is supposed to give life can become a tool of death. Is it possible to celebrate Holy Communion in a way that doesn’t endanger those receiving?
Can Holy Communion be celebrated across distances? Does the proclamation of the Word through electronic means unite a group together in the same way the Word spoken to a gathered group of people does? If distance isn’t an issue in person, is it an issue when the celebration is transmitted across the globe? Can the celebration of Holy Communion be done simultaneously in houses and with bread and wine all around the world, centered in the physical gathering somewhere distant? Is there a quantum-level connection between the bread and wine in a physical gathering and the bread and wine connected visually by a screen or aurally through a speaker that affects both at once?
These are questions previous generations of Christians never had to ask because they could not imagine the technology and scientific understanding we have today. Nor was the option of providing some form of physical connection to the gathered community generally prohibited (with notable exceptions, such as during the Spanish Flu pandemic). But we’re asking them now. We have no choice.
There is a story attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo about two men in a boat. One is a baptized Christian who has committed grave sins, and the other is a catechumen who hasn’t yet been baptized. When it appears that their boat is going to sink, each one provides what the other needs. The Christian baptizes the catechumen, who then hears the other’s confession and pronounces absolution, even though neither of the men were priests. While irregular, the sacraments they administered to each other were valid because their situation necessitated extraordinary steps (and they survived). In the absence of the certainty of good order and tradition, God’s grace prevailed.
It’s frightening how little we trust in God’s grace. My colleagues and I, having never been in a pandemic-inspired state of physical isolation, struggle with how to be church. Sleepless nights trouble me. I lay awake wondering if what I’m doing, what I’m planning, is right. I’m not alone in this state of worry and confusion.
Yet, I have to ask myself: do I have the power to negate God’s grace? Am I mighty enough to break the faith that Holy Spirit has whipped up as a flame in another? I’m good, but I’m not that good. Perhaps I’ve forgotten that neither the Word preached by my mouth nor the sacraments administered through my hands get their validity, power, or ability to “get the job done” because of the ritual actions or the one performing them. The sacraments, the Word of God, faith–all of it comes from Holy Spirit. She decides who and how, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to let human beings, rules, and good order stop her (trust me, she’s feisty and a rebel).
Whatever happens in and to the church as we try to adapt to a situation we’ve never before encountered, our faith will see us through. We won’t be able to be church exactly as we have in the past, the way we’re comfortable being church. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. If I’ve gotten so comfortable in my understanding of church that I struggle to adapt, I can’t imagine I’m the only one. I need to be shaken out of my stupor, and so do you, dear reader. The God we worship is infinitely greater than we can imagine, working in ways we don’t and can’t comprehend. I need that reminder.
Perhaps sacramental ministers will have people celebrate the Holy Communion in their homes while watching a live stream of the Divine Service on their phones. Perhaps they’ll send out kits with consecrated elements so those quarantined at home can taste a bit of the body of Christ, both the flesh and blood and the community of the church. Perhaps they’ll rely on the prayers of Spiritual Communion that call on God to give us the grace through our faith that have been promised through the sacrament we cannot share.
However we do this, church, have faith. Have faith that your attempts to be church in this new, unprecedented circumstance are enough. Have faith that the God who redeems the entire universe because they can’t bear to be apart from us isn’t going to abandon us because we couldn’t do it the “right” way. And if you don’t have that much faith, hear that God does.
By December 1920, the Spanish Flu pandemic had largely run its course. Three waves of the pandemic had come and gone. The waves lasted only a couple months at a time, and in between, life returned to an approximation of normal. Once the pandemic ended, it was soon forgotten. The world was still reeling from World War I, there were other diseases still circulating, and it wouldn’t be long before World War II dawned. It wasn’t until the H1N1 (“swine flu”) pandemic in 2009 that the Spanish Flu reentered the public consciousness. Spanish Flu was devastating, but those who survived rebuilt their lives.
All of that is to say that sometime in the unknown future, the COVID-19 pandemic will pass. It will probably be devastating (though I pray not). I’m scared of what it could do to my community and the people I love. The church is no stranger to sickness, death, and the heartache that comes with them. There is no scenario in which the church will not grieve and mourn during and after this pandemic.
But the church has walked this painful road before, though we ourselves perhaps have not. The church accompanies the suffering and shares the burden, adapting as it needs to for the sake of those it serves. It does not always do so well–think of the church’s reaction to the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic–and it is our responsibility to rise to the occasion. We must accompany those on this road for as long as it takes. And when we come to the end of the road, it will not matter how we observed the rules and regulations of generations of Christians, or the metaphysical or quantumphysical theological arguments we won or lost.
All that will matter is that we did the best we could to ease the suffering in mind, body, and spirit of those we accompanied and relied on the faith of Jesus Christ to do the rest.
Then the righteous will answer him,”Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.“Matthew 25:37-40