by David Romanik
In her spiritual masterpiece Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard offers a reflection on the practice of worship that is worth quoting at length:
The higher Christian churches--where, if anywhere, I belong--come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of the liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
While it is hard to imagine proper Episcopalians sauntering anywhere, let alone at church, I am struck by how accurately Dillard portrays the way many of us approach divine worship. For the most part, fear is not a word most Episcopalians associate with church attendance. Indeed, most of us have a sense that church should be a place where people can feel safe. Several months ago, for instance, I drew on this very assumption to chide some roughhousing acolytes: reminding them that church is a place where people should not have to worry about getting hurt. In general, we do not think of worship as a risky way to spend our time.
That has changed in recent months. As we have explored ways for Heavenly Rest to return to in-person worship, we have had to contend with the fact that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, church attendance is an almost uniquely risky experience. Many of the activities that make church feel most like church, including singing hymns, sitting next to other people, and greeting others with a hug or a handshake, actually facilitate the spread of pathogens. This reality leads to a number of practical considerations. Over the coming days and weeks, you will hear about the various measures we are implementing to mitigate the potential for infection at Heavenly Rest. We will do everything we can to ensure that our parish is as safe as possible for all its members. At the same time, the possibility of infection raises an important theological question, namely: what does it mean for worship to be a risky activity?
Our ancestors in the faith had a healthy sense of fear when they approached the presence of God. For instance, on Yom Kippur, when the high priest of the Temple entered the Holy of Holies in order to pour blood on the mercy seat, he would wear a rope around his ankle, so that his colleagues could pull his body from the the presence of the LORD in case the high priest was struck dead. For the ancient Israelites, in other words, worship was considered to be an implicitly dangerous activity. Of course, this may have been a reflection of the world in which the ancient Israelites lived. After all, there were few activities in the ancient world that were not implicitly dangerous. Life, by its very nature, was a risk. This is part of the reason that the doctrine of the Incarnation is so astonishing. In the Incarnation, we affirm that God became part of the painful and wondrous human story. By becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, God proclaimed that we are worth the risk, that life is worth the risk. This is no small thing. Because if God has determined that life, for all its trials, is worth experiencing, then we can face whatever risks come our way, confident that God has imbued life with a meaning that surpasses our understanding.