S202 Third Sunday of Lenten-Plague

In this episode, a surprise continuation of Season 2, Joe writes more about the wrongness of presence in the time of plague.


It is the first full Sunday of the Lenten-Plague. The churches, one by one, resolve to do their part in the collective self-quarantine, and with each notice of closures, I think two contradictory thoughts: I am, at once, torn between pride that Christians—as have those of other faiths—joined in solidarity with all humanity, and I am disappointed that the gathering is something suddenly optional.

As far as this first thought, I know that the closures are signs of leadership. Whatever else Christians may be backwards or forwards on, they are aligned with culture on quarantine. They are showing moral leadership. And some of my Pagan friends have made sure to say how they are both surprised and delighted that the Christians aren’t causing some silly squabble. They are showing ascent to science. Even the baptists. Even the churches with the word “Bible” in their names.

It is, as far as I know, the greatest ecumenical action of my lifetime. Bishop after bishop announces that their diocese will not meet. The United Methodists voted to spit their church this summer, but they can agree on this: it is part of Christian charity—a sign of love for neighbor—to close doors until Holy Week. A Lutheran church I was planning on attending noted that this was a fortuitous alignment, a true sense of Lent. The Episcopalian church, whose vicar I adore, sent out a touching letter on how this is the right and good Christian step.

Perhaps they are right. The last strongholds—an Anglican church that interests me and another Lutheran church I wanted to check out—announced on Saturday that they would not be meeting. They would continue in prayer, in communication. But there would be no Sunday morning worship, no gathering of the community to mark the resurrection of Jesus.

I am sure that there have been other periods in time when the universal Christian church agreed on something. I don’t remember them. For some reason, this is the thing that the church of the twenty-first century aligned on. In that, I should accept that wisdom and delight in the approval among my non-religious friends that, for once, Christians have not made things worse.

But it is the contrarian in me. Something pushes back. It may be the news article I read this morning about musicians who refuse to cancel their tours. The Reverend Horton Heat (not that kind of reverend) continues to tour, noting, “They can’t stop rock and roll!” He, of course, was met with outrage, even some of his fans contending that he was irresponsible and dumb. Yet, I admired it. The punk ethos. The sense that rock and roll means something that, yes, is irresponsible and dumb. Wattie Buchanan, the frontman for Exploited, using words I am not rock and roll enough to include in an essay, says, “I have had five heart attacks a quad heart bypass and a heart pacemaker fitted. Cancel gigs for a virus?” I’ve never turned to Exploited or the Reverend for wisdom before. And I’m not doing that now. Still….

The Archdiocese of Portland announced that it would be curtailing many services, cutting down on unnecessary exposure and risk. It, however, parting ways from several other dioceses, did not cancel masses or confession. Yes, the archbishop gave a dispensation for the faithful who would not attend mass, and he deterred many populations. He suggested other solutions for keeping within Oregon’s Governor’s restrictions on assemblies of 250 or more people.

So, this morning, I was in mass at St. Michael the Archangel’s, the parish I visit often, though I can’t take the Eucharist. I would if it were offered me. But I am not Catholic, and, second, if I were, I would be forbidden from the Eucharist because I am remarried and considered to be in a constant state of adultery, according to the Church’s teaching. About 50 people were there. I heard one person sneeze.

I won’t attempt to defend the Archbishop, St. Michael’s, my participation, or the participation of those parishioners who were sprinkled out in mass this morning. Nor will I bother describing the beauty of it all, what changes were made to the liturgy, or how closely people sat to one another. That knowledge—and the impression of it—was for those of us who gathered. It is something that cannot be passed on or photographed or recorded. The assembly of the faithful, as ludicrous and irresponsible and dumb as it may be in time of plague—or in any other time—is not a thing served well by narrative or rhetoric. It is, instead, an experience in the ongoing gathering that has taken place in time of famine and feast, in time of plague and health, and in time of war and peace. Someone, I’m sure, is thinking of historical precedent as I say this, noting how in some place and some time the church did the wise and responsible thing and postponed its meetings. I’m sure this has happened and will happen again.

Portland was oddly beautiful and empty, the way cities are beautiful and empty on Christmas morning. On Saturday, we had snow. Most of it, though, has burned away in the sun. And I am reminded of the indifference of nature: how viruses have no morality and how the sun is constant when we are turned toward it: blocked only by those exceptional moments in which the moon passes between it and the earth or when enough clouds accumulate. The sun is never really gone. This morning, in some way, it was wasted. Today should have been an overcast, drizzly day, and then the sunshine could have held out until a more fitting time, when people are free to congregate and move about and touch one another. But that is not how the sun operates.

Next week, I may not go to church. For all I know, the Archdiocese may change its direction. Or I may simply decide, as an individual, that I am wiser than this, that it is truly more loving for me to give up my rights to assemble so that others can have lower risk of infection. Or, perhaps, I just don’t have enough rock and roll in me.

On the way home, I stopped for donuts. My wife has a favorite, an apple fritter from Coco’s Donuts, and with parking being uniquely easy—and for her being uniquely understanding of my own need to be in mass this morning—it seemed an obvious idea. Pick one up for her. It brings her, a simple pleasure. Besides, if we stop buying donuts during the plague, there may not be donut shops when the plague ends—assuming that another plague doesn’t simply follow in its place. There is, perhaps, subconsciously, this other reason for getting donuts, something I didn’t consider until I arrived home. That, maybe, I was protecting the church: that if I did get sick, and brought sickness to my loved ones, there was no way of knowing, with certainty, whether the virus came from mass or from the donut shop.

One of my best friends runs a college. She has been scrambling, madly, working with teacher unions, staff, student services, and all the special interests who are generally not responsive to college administrations. Somehow she managed to enter the weekend with a sophisticated plan that moved all operations into the plague-ending practice of self-quarantine. Added to this, she also has a chronic respiratory illness, and I am deeply frightened about what might happen if the virus got to her. I can’t, to her or to others, justify the need to be in church this morning. I am, as I think about her, probably wrong.

And yet, I feel aligned with Reverend Horton Heat or with the couple sitting on the sidewalk on Broadway, eating glazed originals, or the sun, or the three people—each in a separate car—riding in the Metro as it passed before me on the way. We all had reasons, indefensible or understandable, perhaps, that made us go out into the world and be among other people. We, being the minorities, are certainly wrong—or mostly wrong. And yet, I cannot forget how penetrating and focusing and transcendently vital was the moment when the priest raised the bread and the bell rang three times and, if you believe things the way I do, Christ was present among us. In that rock and roll church. In the time of plague. In a reckless and irresponsible act of presence.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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