I set my alarm to rise early last Sunday morning. That was nothing unusual. I work for a Catholic parish and am several weekends a month on an early ferry to make the commute south. My wife had risen before me. Again this was not out of the ordinary for a Sunday or any other day for that matter. She provides the musical accompaniment for the parish nearest our home and is, like Martha, beset with many anxieties that cause her to sleep altogether too little. What was unusual was that, for the first time in many decades, neither of us was scheduled to go anywhere last Sunday and we did not have to rise. For this was a Sunday like no other we have ever known. For this day, the Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020), was the first Sunday of what I have come to call Our Great Cloistering–the unprecedented quarantine and cessation of public gatherings, including the celebration of the Mass, which has been prudentially imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Without the intrusion of a pandemic this particular Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, is the privileged day on which the Elect–those people chosen to participate in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion at the forthcoming Easter Vigil–celebrate their First Scrutiny. As a cultural anthropologist I once described this ritual as the initiands’ ‘first ordeal.’ Most, however, latch onto this being the first of three (minor) exorcisms in which the Elect participate. Regardless of the language one employs to describe this millennia old catechumenal rite restored in the modern RCIA the fact remains that this Sunday is a big deal for those preparing to become Christians, for those Catholic communities in which these men and women have been formed as disciples of Jesus Christ, and for those of us entrusted with accompanying their spiritual journey. Except today wasn’t a big deal. Or at least the big deal had little to do with that reason. This particular Sunday we couldn’t gather as Church. With the proscription against gathering in public it seemed I was to rise, watch some of my colleagues on a distant screen gather to celebrate the Eucharist in which I was forbidden to bodily engage, and not be admitted to share in that very act of Holy Communion for which I have given my life to prepare others. This particular Sunday was a big deal for me because I didn’t have to get out of bed. “Would it matter if I didn’t?” Truly this was a Sunday like no other.
Our home parish had opted to invite the faithful to tune into the livestream at the cathedral where our relatively new archbishop was to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. My wife was interested in seeing our new archbishop whom she had not yet encountered and so we had agreed that we would worship as a family by livestreaming the Mass from St. James Cathedral in solidarity with all those in our little home parish. Though we had a plan for this particular Sunday morning it was hard to convince myself to get out of bed. As I thought about the Elect with whom I would not be gathering that day and how we would not be celebrating the First Scrutiny it got harder and harder for me to get out of bed. As I thought how we would not gather as a parish in my hometown to prepare my son and his peers for first Holy Communion I withdrew deeper and deeper under my duvet and tried to convince myself that I should not get out of bed. Maybe if I just slept through this day it might all go away. In the end I only snoozed my alarm once–which would have been enough to made me miss my ferry under normal circumstances–and then I arose, showered, donned church slacks and a purple sweater. That was a little something I could do even though I could do nothing else in these circumstances for these are not normal circumstances.
When I came downstairs I gazed at the curiously silent and blank television where we watch the news, stream learning content from countless apps, enjoy some time ‘vegging out’ on Netflix, and replay videos we took during family adventures. I was overwhelmed by feeling angry that this was how I was expected to participate in the Mass. I just stood there and wanted things to be different. Fortunately it was a gloriously sunny morning–a rare occurrence during these early Spring days here in the Pacific Northwest–and so I was taken away by the sunrise, the trees, the sparkling water of the harbor which I am blessed to see from my living room. “All you creatures of the Lord, bless the Lord” we sing in Morning Prayer echoing the Song of the Three Children from Daniel. And so my attention shifted to my own children. They too are experiencing displacement, feeling uncertainty with at least six weeks of no school looming in front of (or greeting!) them. They too, are accustomed to spending every Sunday–and many other days of their lives–at church to pray and spend time in fellowship with friends. They too would be like sheep without a shepherd on this Sunday like no other. As I stared at our TV–not sure now whether I was angry or simply resigned–I was overcome by a profound sense that today just might be the most important Sunday in our lives as a domestic church. How would we celebrate this Mass? Would this be a moment when I would pass on to my children my anxieties about the world whirling about us? Would this be a day when I would teach my children to join me in grumbling when things don’t go the way we expect them to? Or would something more grace filled happen? Would this be a moment of peace, of clinging to the Cross and praising the Lord? Would this be a Sunday like no other because of our trust in God?
I looked again at the TV and the area around it. I don’t know about you but our house is a mess! We all leave stuff where it ought not be left, the dog shreds projects someone once thought was important (but for which no one claims responsibility when the bits are left to pick up), and we get so busy with the myriad things we have all chosen to do that the detritus of daily living flows in a constant stream from the bottom step of the front porch all the way to each and every dining room chair. So as I stood in our living room at this moment I was now neither angry for not being in church nor simply resigned to watch Mass on TV but I was sad. This, this mess, this was where we were supposed to participate in that divine liturgy by which heaven is wedded to earth? Yup. As it turns out this is where God wants to dwell. Here in our midst. Here in our mess. “Lord, have mercy!” The sadness was ruled out and I needed to do something.
I pulled the piano bench over in front of the TV and went looking for a purple cloth in that heap where we toss everything over which we pronounce our hoarding epithet “Oh, we’ll fix this one day!” I tossed a worn bedsheet over the bench then immediately yanked it off. Leftovers weren’t worthy for what we were about to do. I opened the drawer of those few nice things we reserve for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. “But the nice tablecloth is white and Lent is meant to be purple!” I folded our beautiful white table cloth in thirds–rather like a corporal–and draped it over the bench. I went to the piano itself and grabbed the dusty runner that protects our second-hand spinet from daily life and threw that over the the white cloth. Though I had thought the runner looked purple it turns out that in the brilliant first light close to the windows it shimmered silvery altogether too much to be fitting for Lent. But I left it. I tried at first to correct it with a purple napkin but that looked so dingy and diminutive that I took it away. I went upstairs and pulled from the wall the crucifix that has hung over our bed during our 19 years of marriage, extracted our nicest crystal candle holders with mostly spent candles, and pulled my copy of the Abbey Psalter from the shelf to place them all on the draped piano bench that was becoming our prayer table. Since the Gospel proper to this Sunday, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, forms the core of the Elect’s experience of preparing to leave behind those patterns of life to which we all cling and which distance us from receiving the one thing we truly need, namely Jesus’ mercy (what we call “sin” in the Christian tradition), I felt we needed a well so I dug out our nicest crystal bowl, filled it with ordinary water, and put that also on the piano bench. That was all I could muster. For this was indeed a Sunday unlike any other.
When my children awoke and came downstairs it was my daughter who came down first and said, “Nice altar, Dad.” She’s eleven. And an altar server. And she’s never the first one down. I wasn’t sure if her remark was one of snark or was in fact genuine. With not a word between us she answered me doubt as she went over to the kitchen and grabbed the tulips, already beginning to droop a little since I’d picked them up during my last pre-quarantine run to Trader Joe’s–and placed them next to the TV. She moved four chairs from the dining room over near the TV and arranged them in a semi-circle . And, although my son grumbled a little when I said we wouldn’t be wearing pajamas to participate in Mass, he changed, fetched his MagnifiKid Mass participation aid, and took up a chair between me and our puppy to celebrate Mass. My daughter had already put on something approaching church clothes and was lighting the candles without anyone asking her to do so. It was driven home to me in that moment that, while we all have to nag each other about a great many things all the time–a point we each experience ‘coworking’ at home these days–the ease of this non-verbal communication confirmed what I long ago learned through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and see over and over again in the Atrium: we prepare an environment and the invitation to prayer and worship follows naturally.
So, despite the dog flipping his chew toy around in our makeshift nave, my spending more than a small portion of the Mass looking wistfully out the window rather than fixing my gaze on the TV, and my wife being distracted by that region of the mess we hadn’t contained I begun to wonder what anyone else might make of our family on their knees watching a selfie-style video on a TV flanked by mismatched candles and droopy tulips–most especially the intern living with us who was doing her laundry at the time (she has at this point unfortunately been forced to return to her home-country by order her embassy)–and I was filled with a sense that this was right. Not that it was a model to follow or perfect in any way but that this was what we were supposed to be doing right here and right now. This mess, this distraction, this was where God has chosen to dwell. On this Sunday unlike any other we made a space, or, rather a time, a Sabbath, and we did our best to hallow it. We did what we could with what we’ve all been dealt to set ourselves and our home apart , to make sacred this Sunday, this Sunday which is like no other any we have ever known.
I still feel rather like Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and wish that this “need not have happened in my time.” But in making a small gesture, in shepherding the flock given to my care and making a place where they can bring to the prayer table their needs I receive some reassurance from the wise voice who compassionately responds, “So do I…and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I pray that the Lord may hallow my family’s efforts–and that he may hallow those given to your family–as we each look to “set apart” a space and a time in our homes, our distinct domestic churches in order to worship him. He chose my mess and your mess and he wants to dwell (t)here. None of us chose this but he chooses this moment and he gives himself to us in these uncertain days. May the Lord open our eyes to see those blessings and graces he is pouring out on us in this time, this Lent, which is like no other.