We keep a Jesse Tree tradition during the month of December, reading little Scriptures and placing ornaments on a bare tree. It’s a way of teaching the children, and reminding ourselves of the big biblical stories in the lead-up to Christmas. My four-year-old son was shocked and thrilled — like he was let in on a secret — when David beheaded Goliath. One night last week, we hung the fiery furnace and told the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they refused to bow to an idol, King Nebuchadnezzar decided to throw them into the furnace. My daughter started to anticipate that God would save them.
She was right. They were thrown into a fire, but did not burn. The Babylonian king was impressed. So was my daughter. Soon, she demanded that we go back to church. A good request from a child has a way of clarifying things. So for the first time since March, we did just that.
If airlines will fly us packed into a little tube with strangers without spread, then surely we, acting cautiously and according to the regulations of state and church, could do this safely. We had avoided going partly because the system of reservations that our parish instituted seemed to suggest that by asking to come to Mass you would, by necessity, deny the chance to others.
We shouldn’t have been so passive. Our parish church normally has a seating capacity of 800. When the five of us arrived and filed into the last pew in the church, the number of worshippers was 32. In the time before COVID, there might have been 32 people serving in the sanctuary alone, a parade of priests, deacons, subdeacons, and row after row after row of altar boys. Several pews were roped-off between us and another worshipper.
The Mass itself was consoling and depressing in equal measure. First, the consolations: The church building itself, with its Marian blue ceiling, recently renovated sanctuary, and painting of the Assumption was a deep comfort. The Mass itself. The ancient Latin prayers, sung during other plagues, famines, wars, and panics — almost all of them much worse than what we were enduring. The voices of the two choir singers — and their children. They are friends, and though we couldn’t see them from our last-pew seats, they stood over us.
The depressing: Seeing our pastor put on a face shield before distributing communion, which was done after the conclusion of the Mass itself. Combine that sight with the tiny number of worshippers and the whole scene had a post-disaster mood. It was as if the congregation I’d known had been hit by a nuclear bomb that had destroyed 90 percent of us, and the survivors were still a radioactive danger to each other. Then there was the awkwardness of being forbidden to sing ourselves — which meant being forbidden the normal sung responses. But muscle memory applies to worship as well. We choked on our own Et cum spiritu tuos.
At the end of Mass, my son said he wanted to play — he meant the normal run around in the churchyard during coffee hour. Again, a good request from a child has a way of clarifying things. That’s why people so often make up stories about what their precocious children say, as a way of bragging about the seeds the parents planted in their minds. But it’s not always cute. We told my son that coffee hour was canceled. We didn’t remind him that none of his friends were there anyway.
The remaining flights are packed, but the remaining church services are partly emptied. I’m afraid that the post-pandemic world is one where many of us will be out of the healthy habits of socializing, and the healthy habits of religion, too. For much of the pandemic, my connection to the actual Church is just the automated email informing me of the automatic debit transaction, my contribution for the week.
I have to try to remember that the first Christmas was also attended by a small and quite irregular congregation, under the threat of danger and the shadow of death. There were shepherds and a few pagan mystics. Which was the more holy: the small muck of the animals at the first Christmas, or the antiseptic cleaner that was sprayed on the open pews just before our return to church? I submit the mystery to a higher authority.
My daughter insists that we go to Midnight Mass.