When the nation “shut down” in March of 2020, the phrase “the new normal” assumed a degree of prominence in public discourse. The new normal meant working from home (at least for those privileged enough to do so), Zoom meetings, digital school, tuning into live-streamed liturgies for Christians (a somewhat controversial topic on this blog), and practices of social distancing.
Human beings need stability to function. And thus, the desire to return to some stasis while suffering a global pandemic should not be blithely dismissed.
At the same time, whatever ecclesial, political, and social life is in the fall of 2020, it is not normal. It is normal for human beings to be able to gather in person. It is normal to approach another person not as a carrier of disease but as one’s neighbor. It is normal to experience embodied presence through a teacher offering a comforting touch to a kindergarten student who is crying. The exclusion of these dimensions of life cannot — except in the most monstrous of societies — be made normal.
For Christians, the effects of the global pandemic reveal not normalcy but the fallen nature of the world. Creation is groaning, awaiting the fullness of redemption. A global pandemic is a kind of sacramental reminder of this fact. We are incomplete, creatures who, despite our best laid plans, are subject to disease, loneliness, poverty, and eventually death. God intended something else for human beings, a very different kind of normalcy. But our forebears refused this normalcy, instead wanting to be like gods. They wanted control.
I wonder if our attraction to the phrase “the new normal” is ultimately one of the ways that we avoid dealing with our precarity, to seize once more control. Rather than recognize digital liturgies and classrooms as abnormal responses to an exceptional global pandemic, “the new normal” enables us to overlook our morality. We can get back to the business, yes even the commerce, of living. And part of this business of living is bracketing out the limitations that human beings possess. We can make ourselves secure.
And yet, the only new normal that exists for us Christians is that which Christ revealed. The meaning of human life is not a false security but the self-emptying love of the cross. It is normal to recognize the abnormality of human existence, the fact that we were made for something more — for love unto the end. Illness and death, sickness and sorrowing do not deserve a stoic response. They cannot be bracketed out through good wishes, hopeful thinking, and technological ingenuity. Only divine love, the love made manifest upon the cross, enables us to respond to such suffering.
As Christians, therefore, we should avoid speaking to those in the Eucharistic assembly of “the new normal.” Yes, we need stability. We cannot have changes that take place every day of our lives. There is a routine that develops as we get used to Zoom meetings and digital learning.
But none of what we are experiencing is remotely normal. Rather, it is a manifestation of a world still on the way, on pilgrimage toward the only normalcy that should define human life — the loving, abiding contemplation of God.
Until then, we must live the only normalcy that makes sense to us Christians — the self-giving love of the Word made flesh. Such normalcy, by the way, will often be critical of not only “the new normal” but “the previous normal.” The two “normals” seem to share the assumption that the human being is primarily an economic creature, measured by his or her productivity. “Look, it’s a global pandemic! You can keep working in the same way that you did before, making the same amount of money. Your kids can learn math and reading online, which is really the only thing that we need them to learn if they are to be engineers and policy wonks at think tanks. And eventually, you can return to endless activity, just as you did before.”
So, yes, as human beings and Christians, we need stability. But both “the new normal” and the “previous normal” privilege a mode of living that forces us to bracket out our precarity. Instead, as Christians, let us recognize that the world is fallen. That the “new normal” is the wages of sin and death. And let us long, not for normalcy, but the redemption of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life. He is also a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.