By John Sundara
Perhaps one of those things that we shouldn’t be surprised to see, but we will all probably see more of in this new season of “Coronatide,” is an increase in lists of books to read, shows to binge, movies to catch up on — a litany of ways to escape from the walls of boredom closing in on us as we practice self-isolation and social distancing.
And I get it. In some ways, we are prisoners, hostages of this virus. It has hijacked our lives, our schedules and calendars and plans, even our friendships. In a certain way, it has robbed us of a profound use of our bodies, to touch each other, to hold hands, see each other sans screens and apps, smell each other’s unique scent, feel the warmth and breath of another. At the very least, it has made human interactions a source of anxiety and stress. We want to escape our hostage-taker, and so we make lists of escapes.
This is why I appreciated Ephraim Radner’s recent article “Should We Live-stream Worship? Maybe Not.” Anyone familiar with Radner’s work would immediately identify one of his central ecclesiological claims: the Church’s life in Christ, figured in the cross and the history of Israel, is a life under judgment. This judgment takes various shapes and forms, including our inability and incapacity to see and taste Christ. Thus, we hunger and thirst for him. If one can get comfortable with this starting claim, Radner’s ecclesiology is more comprehensible, even if it is disagreeable, like strong, bitter medicine.
Central to Radner’s theological anthropology is the conviction that we are creatures. This is perhaps simultaneously a vague and a precise claim. Vague: we are creatures, but so what? So are pelicans and giraffes and the coronavirus. Precise: we are creatures and Christian maturity is to embrace the finitude and suffering into which God has caused us humans to be. Both his anthropology and his ecclesiology are Christocentric and crucicentric.
His article on live streaming worship recasts these central theses in our context —does virtual worship somehow escape this judgement? Does it represent an attempt to avoid living into our creaturehood? I appreciated his sociological analysis and description of an unholy trinity, namely maternalization, infantilization, and siliconization, and his greater conclusion is that we ought to grow up, to mature, to learn to live into our judgment. He suggests that this might involve learning to pray alone, to use our Prayer Books, and ultimately, to hunger and thirst for Christ.
But there is a fork in the road. Radner’s essay begins,
Should we live-stream worship at this time? Maybe not. At least we should think about why, to what end, and with what consequences.
It’s easy to forget that this “maybe not,” this fork on the road, is a companion of “maybe.” As Radner walks one way, I want to traverse the other.
Radner’s essay providentially preceded Laetare Sunday. As I vested and prepared for our livestream service, all I felt in that moment was loss and grief. But maybe also joy. Loss and grief: at the deafening silence after each acclamation waiting for a response that happened beyond the camera; at the lack of children’s laughter, or clumsiness as they approach the altar; at the many foreheads I wouldn’t bless; at the hundreds of open palms into which I wouldn’t place crumbs of Christ.
Imagine this loss, further magnified, when the introit for Laetare Sunday says, “I rejoiced when they said unto me, let us go unto the house of the Lord.” Anyone who has heard Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad” can feel a tinge of David’s joy in Psalm 122. It’s an anthem that strengthened my own calling to the priesthood. Yet the words felt hollow of joy, instead filled with the grief of another psalm, Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Anyone who has now stood in the strange land of an empty worship space, speaking into the apparent void, will surely feel that loss and grief. There is no “us” going unto the house of the Lord.
But I also felt joy, or at least contentment at a joy deferred. Isn’t joy deferred after all what Laetare Sunday is all about? It’s a joy deferred that lifts our eyes to beautiful Jerusalem, the Jerusalem above who is free, for she is our mother. It’s a joy deferred that traverses like a pilgrim through a strange land, to the beautiful city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. It’s the joy deferred that hungers and thirsts for Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest. I know not, oh, I know not, what joys await us there; what radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.
Radner is right. There is a way in which live-streamed worship is our flimsy tactic to escape our own judgment and creaturehood through our technological prowess. It is, if you will, a form of works-based salvation. I am concerned that people tune into live stream worship in the same way that they tune into Netflix and Hulu — it is another digital offering on an otherwise lengthy menu of virtual escapes. I am concerned that our hunger and thirst for connection with each other pales in comparison for our hunger and thirst for Christ, most of all in the sacrament. I am concerned that this season, instead of maturing us may stunt us, because ultimately what we keep striving for is escape when really what we should yearn for is beauty.
So, perhaps what may initially seem like a fork in the road, may indeed be one road that requires two kinds of fellow-pilgrims, two kinds of fellow-traversers — one that learns to pray alone, to use the prayer book; another who aspires for beauty. Together, they teach each other to hunger and thirst for Christ. To cross a vast and endless ocean needs two kinds of seafarers — one that knows how to build and sail a boat, and another that yearns for the distant shore beyond that vast and endless ocean.
In this season of Coronatide, Christians need to learn to pray alone, to mine the depths of their Bibles, to thumb and wear out the covers and pages of the prayer book. But they also need to be reminded of beauty. The beauty of liturgy, the beauty of hymnody, of hearing anthems and motets, of the grandeur of pipes and strings. Christians need to see gilded wooden altars and ornately carved stone pulpits, wax candles and stained-glass windows, marble and brass. They need to hear the rhythms and cadences of collects recited in familiar tones, and hear the gospel spoken in a voice more confident than theirs. They need to see bread and wine lifted up. Not so that we can be lifted out of our misery, indulging escapism. But so that we can yearn for that Jerusalem that is above, longing for beauty.
And perhaps that is one reason to live-stream — not that it would lessen our absence from each other, but that it would heighten absence, and thus teach us to yearn, to hunger and ache, to cross that vast and endless ocean so that we may find ourselves at the shores of that new Jerusalem, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven. If live streaming is done right — and granted, that is a big “if” — perhaps it can inculcate in us not the fleeting, pedestrian emotions of escape or a reprieve from our times. But rather give us a deepening hunger and thirst for Jerusalem, for Christ, for our maturity. Beautiful Jerusalem, that sweet and blessed country, the home of God’s elect. Oh, sweet and blessed country that eager hearts expect. May Jesus, in his mercy bring us to that dear land of rest, who art, with God the Father, and the Spirit, ever blest.
The Rev. John D. Sundara is assistant rector for Christian formation at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas. He’s a pretty uninteresting guy who likes a laugh. He loves his wife and his kids. He enjoys cooking good food.