The Shape of Love in a Time of Contagion
March 12, 2020 – David R. Weiss
I sit next to J almost very Sunday at church, and I’ve done so for close to two years. We were complete strangers who simply would up in the same pew. Again and again. She is now my sister in Christ. No hyperbole there. Our mutually introverted selves light up with quiet joy when we greet each other as one of us slides into the pew where the other is already waiting.
For months we passed the peace with timid handshakes (we take our introversion seriously). Then firm handshakes … then tentative hugs … and finally, and only rather recently, with warm hugs that hint at the kinship we’ve found side by side in worship. Understand, for some people this “passing the peace” is either merely a quaint archaic ritual or the momentary bustle of greeting one another. But between us—and, no doubt, between many others—this passing the peace speaks a truth made tactile in our touch. As though weekly, when I say to J, “Peace be with you,” deeper than those words —in my very touch—I add, “And this mystery is deeper than either of us, sister, for here we are, side by side, being the very communion of saints.”
It is such a simple moment in the liturgy. And I don’t claim to reach such levels of holy wonder with every person I greet during that time. But it isn’t only J. I mention her specifically merely because she’s right next to me all service long. I could add the initials of at least a dozen others with whom that momentary touch builds a bridge of sacred honor and energy.
I’d even say that the touch in the passing of peace, whether by handshake or hug, is sacramental. It is physical element bound to promisory word (it is not “my” peace, but the peace of Christ that we share), and it carries grace from one person to another. But right now, touch … can be deadly. For that matter, so can bread, wine, and baptismal water. Not these elements themselves, but the way we touch them—and “touch” each other through them—during worship.
How do we respond when these means of grace threaten to become disease vectors instead? How do we respond when gathering for worship itself threatens to increase the threat we pose to one another—and to “the least of these” in our communities? These are pressing public health issues that are presently forcing their way into our churches. They raise challenging issues for how we practice our faith. And I know that pastors and other church leaders are actively, fervently wrestling with these questions right now.
I have an opinion about that. I say it’s time to set aside communal worship for a month or so and take it online as much as possible—and immediately—and then with equal speed to determine whose spiritual needs cannot be met online and find ways that honor the virtue of social distancing while also carrying the gospel to these persons. By now there is more than enough science to know with relative certainty that every Sunday we delay will worsen the pandemic, allowing the disease to spread further across our communities and exact a more deadly toll before it subsides.
We have no excuse to wait for sports teams, businesses, and government to lead the way. We were (re)born—baptized—for just such a time as this. To live by life-giving faith that cares especially for the least of these. To model—ahead of the curve, not by playing catch-up—what it means to love one another when gathering and touch and taste (the very actions that typically shape our worship) pose unwarrantable risks. We should be practicing the gospel of social distancing in our worship and we should be preaching that same gospel with compelling force such that it bears fruit in the way our members make daily choices to socially distance themselves during the rest of their week. This is what love looks like in a time of contagion.
Of course there are a myriad of questions about this. Does every church attempt its own live stream worship? Do we pool resources across several church communities? How can more tech-savvy churches assist others? How do we sing together? How do we pass the peace? How do we commune? All real practical questions, some of which have real theological questions bound up with them.
But we should not be distracted by either the technological difficulties or the theological nuances; we cannot afford to be. The wellbeing of our communities—that is, our congregations, our towns and cities, our states and our nation—hangs in the balance. Decisions we make in the next days (some of which should have been made in the past few weeks) will determine the scope of this pandemic in our country, whether it merely tests or altogether overwhelms our health care capacity. How many lives it takes along the way. And (tragically and obscenely) how much our profit-care system will worsen the pandemic by keeping people from the care they need—for their sake and for ours. Our choices regarding corporate worship will impact all these things.
Right now our faith will not protect us—EXCEPT as it leads us to be prudent, caring, courageous, decisive … and socially distant.
Several Sundays ago J and I (and many others in our sanctuary) began trading elbow bumps during the passing of peace. Our congregation, like many others, has stumbled its way (awkwardly, with a bit of self-conscious nervous laughter) into this better-if-not-best practice of social distancing. It’s probably a wise strategy during cold and flu season in general. And it’s likely little more than window dressing during a pandemic. But still.
Last Sunday, however, J and I passed the peace … through the longing in our eyes. There are barely words for how powerful this was. No doubt, touch is a deep connector. There is quiet electricity in the tips of our fingers when the peace of Christ moves between us. But Sunday, restrained out of genuine care for one another, we simply looked and spoke the words, “Peace … be with you.” And there was a sacred surge that linked us, soul-to-soul. Only for a moment. But undeniably and powerfully so.
And I remembered something both well-known and well-buried within our tradition. God dwells, too, in absence. In holy longing. The apophatic mystics knew this aspect of God. By heart. Theirs are the voices in our tradition that have plumbed the depths of the Divine in darkness. Unknowing. Absence. Hardly the normative experience of God, they bear witness to the way God … hovers … at the edge and in the extreme. Beyond words and categories. In the Absence of Presence. (Think about that: a Christian-Zen koan, if you ask me!) God waits in the breach. And when life carries us to the breach, we can discover that God is already there.
This may be the most crucial insight faith communities can offer during this pandemic. That sometimes disrupting our lives—to the extreme—is okay, even necessary. And that when we do so, it is NOT for lack of faith, or hope, or love. It is the very essence thereof.
This public health call to socially distance ourselves is our Christian vocation in this moment. We do so as an act of hope, grounded not in desperation, but in the confidence that we remain the communion of saints, even when we “gather” distant and in longing. We do so as an act of faith, knowing that God, who is Emmanuel—ever with us—welcomes us and binds us together even as we seem scattered. And we do so as an act of love, embracing distance as the way we love our neighbor in this pandemic season.
Of course, there will also be moments in which cautious presence will be required, whether to provide medical care or to meet the basic needs of others. But this is a moment of genuine crisis, and we dismiss its seriousness at immense peril to those we love. Normal life is over for the next month or more. Social distance is the shape of love in a time of contagion.
Now, from right where you are, look into my eyes. “The peace of Christ be with you.”
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.