One of the side-effects of the world wide lock-down in the context of COVID-19 is the blanket ban on gatherings, be it religious, social or commercial. With this restriction imposed in most parts of the world, religious ceremonies involving people have been suspended indefinitely. Therefore in the religious sphere, we do not foresee any imminent return to the situation before the lock-down. That means, concretely in the Catholic church, what we used to do before the lock-down – large gatherings for mass and other sacraments, processions, feasts, pilgrimages, conventions and so on – will have to wait, as of now. In this context, religious people raise a pertinent question: how do we practice our faith during this lock-down, when we are not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies? The response to this question will depend on how one understands ‘religious praxis’. Since this discussion is about a situation wherein public religious ceremonies are suspended, let us consider two different perspectives to evaluate the role of religious ceremonies in one’s religious praxis: first, a mindset where religious ceremonies in churches or other religious places form the essence of one’s religious praxis; and second, a different mindset where these ceremonies are only a part of one’s religious praxis.
a. Cannot Practise Faith without Church Ceremonies: Probably many church-going Christians belong to the first group, who simply cannot think of practising their faith without attending church ceremonies. Different expressions of this mindset, both by clergy and laity, were reported during the lock-down. Some even dared government restrictions and went ahead with church gatherings, as if they were indispensable or they could cure the virus. Many were frustrated and are eagerly waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, so that the ceremonies could resume and they could regain peace. Some substituted church attendance with viewing these ceremonies in TV, internet, etc. (for many, these were ‘invalid’ means before the corona came!). Some cried out that the virus is not bigger than the Lord: sure, but is the Lord identical with or restricted to church gatherings? Sadly, many have been habituated to thinking so. An analogy would help us overcome this limitation. Most Jews in Jesus’ time could not think of practising their faith without the sacrifices and ceremonies in the Jerusalem temple; that is why when Jesus disrupted it on a single occasion (cleansing of the temple: Mk 11:15-18), he had to pay a huge price for it – he was arrested and crucified in just four-five days’ time. But ironically a few years later, after the Roman army destroyed the temple in 70CE and never allowed it to be rebuilt, the Jews did not abandon their faith but continued with alternative practices such as those in homes or in the synagogues. Today, most Jews seem to be comfortable practising the same faith even without a temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, religious ceremonies and rituals do not have a permanent nature; they change and evolve according to time, place and situations. So much so, COVID-19 will certainly have a lasting effect on many religious rituals; for example, at least as long as corona is around, many would be reluctant to receive possibly ‘virus-laden’ communion from a priest who coughs and sneezes during the mass.
b. Faith is Practised outside the Church Ceremonies also: For the second group of Christians, rituals and ceremonies in the Church are only one part of their religious praxis; the major part of their religious praxis happens outside these ceremonies, in real life situations. The gatherings in the Church may provide the inspiration, impetus and the basis for their faith and praxis, but certainly the practice of their faith is not restricted to the church. So, there is no denying the important role of the ceremonies, but the practice of Christian faith goes well beyond them. This perspective also found several expressions during the lock-down. Following the Christian tradition of service especially during disasters, several relief works were taken up by many Christian individuals and organizations during this pandemic too. Thus, many Christians got an opportunity to truly touch the core of Christian faith – love for one another – through their concern for the suffering fellow beings. Food, shelter, health care, compassion, forgiveness... in numerous instances, all these found their right place during the pandemic. And those who cared thus to practise love in their lives (even without attending the church) were not frustrated at all. They lost neither their faith, nor their peace; probably they gained more peace during the pandemic by serving others. Why so? Because Christian faith is to be lived in real lives, more than performed as rituals. This is clear from the New Testament’s insistence on good deeds: they may see your good works (Mt 5:16); good fruits (Mt 7:17); house built on rock (Mt 7:24); faithful slave (Mt 24:45); talents (Mt 25:21); oil in the lamp (Mt 25:4); giving food, drink, etc. (Mt 25:35-36); sharing of wealth (Mk 10:21); Good Samaritan (Lk 10:37); new commandment (Jn 13:34); faith and deeds (Jas 2:18-20); loving service (Gal 5:13), etc. And on the other hand, we notice in the New Testament an almost complete disregard for religious rituals: Jesus and his disciples are not reported to have performed any Jewish ritual except a Passover meal; in fact, Matthew has twice quoted the Hosean dictum, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13; 12:7). In other words, Christian faith is to be practised by living the Gospel values of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, service, justice, equality, truthfulness, etc. And gladly, there is no ban on the practice of these values even during the pandemic!
The frustration we notice after the suspension of public religious ceremonies during the pandemic is mostly among some ‘stage performers’ and their audience: they naturally get frustrated when there are no more stages. On the other hand, ‘real performers’ are not worried about the closure of stages, because they are not acting out faith, but living it. So then, what will happen if the ban on large religious gatherings continues further? It is my pleasant speculation that many Christians will emerge as better Christians by finding real ways of practising Christian values. In the absence of a ban, many would have continued limiting their religious praxis to church rituals and ceremonies. Now, since that substitution is not available, one has to look for real ways of practising faith. And once the church gatherings resume, they will hopefully cherish them more.
By – Fr. Martin George CMF
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