by David Romanik
At the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter, the Celebrant addresses the congregation with the following words: “Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer”. Embedded in this invitation is a paradox: an acknowledgment that even as we gather to celebrate the Paschal feast, we are separated from other members of Christ’s body. In fact, the language of this invitation implies that being scattered is the Church’s endemic condition, and that the moments of gathering are, at most, fleeting.
The experience of being scattered is central to our faith. The formative experience of the Jewish people was the exile: the time when God’s people were taken from Jerusalem and separated from one another. While it was a period of lamentation, the exile was also a time of deep reflection and astonishing creativity. Most of the Torah was written down during the exile. Almost all the prophetic writings refer to the exile in one way or another. Indeed, one could argue that, without the exile, the Judeo-Christian tradition would not have come into being.
The theme of exile permeates the New Testament as well. The writer of 1 Peter, for instance, addresses his letter to “the exiles in the dispersion”. The Church, in other words, is meant to find meaning in the experience of being scattered.
Over the past year, we have been prevented from gathering as a community of faith: separated from one another in ways that most of us have never experienced. On the whole, our response as a community has been to create opportunities to gather safely (or at least to create a passable facsimile of gathering). I wonder, however, whether we have spent sufficient time reflecting on what it has meant to be scattered. In our efforts to reclaim our identity as the gathered Church, have we neglected our call to be the scattered Church?
The reason it is important for us to reflect on what it means to be the scattered Church is because it helps us make sense of our mortal nature. Central to the human experience is the fact that we will be separated from those we love through death. We will lose people with whom we have unfinished business, people whom we haven’t forgiven, people with whom we simply didn’t spend enough time. Our faith, however, promises that these losses can be redeemed, that even death cannot interrupt God’s work of reconciliation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a pledge that, in the end, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love or from those whom we have lost.
This Holy Week and Easter, we have been able to gather in ways that we could not last year, and for that I give thanks to God. My prayer, however, is that we do not lose a sense of what it means to be the scattered Church: urgently and persistently trusting in the God who raises the dead and redeems every separation.