In the weeks that have past, Jasmine and I— like so many other church leaders all across the world— have sought to provide online services for our parishioners, now sequestered in their homes during this time of necessary social distancing. After six weeks of doing so, the process has become a familiar, almost comforting, pandemic routine: (1) record the various elements of the service on Friday, (2) edit the material together on Saturday, (3) post to Youtube and share on Facebook by Saturday night.
The first Sunday morning, when my family and I sat down in our living room to watch one of these services, I assumed that the experience would be awkward and unnatural. However, to my surprise, I actually found it rather worshipful— especially during the time of intercessory prayer. It truly felt like I was not the only one praying— that the friends from my church community were all standing around me, raising their thoughts to God and making the same petitions. I’d like to think that we experienced a sense of spiritual communion— not only with God— but, indeed, with one another.
However, despite the blessings that these online services have brought, we must never lose sight of one important thing; namely, that they are nothing but a temporary and, ultimately, futile substitute for the the real thing: sitting in the same space together, breathing the same air, sharing the same meal, embracing one another and, in short, living our lives in common. We are not disembodied intellects. We are not abstract minds. We are creations of God, formed from the very stuff of the universe, with bodies that breath, bleed and breed. We have been created, not merely for intellectual communion, but physical communion. If anyone doubts this, they need only consider the harshest form of punishment still employed in most penal systems: solitary confinement. It can— and indeed has— driven people mad. We are physical creatures who need to be with one another— a fact which both the doctrine and the practice of our faith affirm.
The scriptures do not speak of physical matter as a perverse accident — a morass that we must struggle to transcend and escape. Rather, physical matter is the good creation of a loving God— a God who purposefully called it into being by his Word. Indeed, it is for the sake of this good creation that this same Eternal Word became a very part of it. A woman bore him and nursed him; he ate and he drank; felt hunger and thirst; drew close to his friends; felt loss, abandonment, pain and ultimately death. And, when the day of his triumph finally came, it did not involve the shedding of his physical frame but, rather, the glorification it. As I reminded my congregation this Easter, resurrection is bodily. “Look at my hands and feet,” the risen Lord declares to his startled disciples, “Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39-40).
As we are learning, the physical nature of our confession is one that must be lived out week-to-week in the life of the body of Christ. Ideally, we should gather together— not online, not virtually— but with each in the same place and at the same moment. And, as we gather together, we are to engage in rituals that present to God not merely our minds but our bodies, too— our hands, folded in prayer, our knees bent in adoration, our heads bowed in reverence, our vocal chords, employed in penitence, petition and praise. Even our mouths and stomaches are drawn into our common worship. We are to share bread with one another. We are to drink wine together. When someone wishes to join us at table, she must be sprinkled (or, perhaps, immersed) in water— the very substance that constitutes the greater part of our physical nature and which we, ultimately, cannot do without. When one of our members are sick, we are to surround him, lay our hands upon him, anoint him and pray for his healing. When we disperse, we are to go out into a hurting world to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, a welcoming embrace to the lonely, the sick and the imprisoned. None of these things can be done remotely. None of these things can happen in a cold, sterile world, viciously sanitized of all the beautiful and messy exchanges that keep us sane and whole and human.
Everything about the current crisis— from its cause (a virus), its mitigating measures (social distancing) and its aberrations (the bizarre impulse to hoard toilet paper) speak to our bodily nature as human beings and the carnal nature of our faith as Christians. We are learning that, unlike the angels, we are not pure spirit. We are children of Adam, shaped from humble clay, ceaselessly dependent upon our maker for life and breath. We are social animals that need one another. This is a truth that, in the years leading up to this crisis, we seem to have forgotten. We have walled ourselves within an online world; we have shielded ourselves from one another with screens. In the end, we have reaped the consequences: Rising rates of depression in a civilization of unprecedented material abundance; a loneliness epidemic in a culture saturated by social media; an opiate crisis fuelled by a host of lost souls, desperate for connection with their neighbours.
This year, it seems, the Lord has laid upon us a strange fast. When we fast, we do not fast from sinful and destructive things. (These, of course, we are to forsake forever). Rather, we fast from good things so that we can truly appreciate these things for what they are— gifts from a God from whom all goodness and blessing flow. This year, our fast is teaching us that our very carnality is a blessing; our realtime, real space assemblies are a gift; our physical dependence upon one another is a good, God-willed part of our very humanity. When this pandemic eventually passes, let us not allow this lesson to be lost upon us. Let us not replace our weekly gatherings with videos and live-chats. Rather, let’s embrace one another, exchange the peace and be supremely grateful for the awesome blessing of simply being with one another.