Welcoming the Christ child from a safe distance doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the Incarnation in tangible ways, writes Canon David Harrison.
It is surely not without irony that as we approach the fleshliest and most intimate of our Christian holy days, we are being enjoined to keep distance from one another. Just as we are to celebrate the birth in time of the timeless Son of God in a real place—in the midst of the sounds and smells of real people and real animals—we must keep our distance from one another for our common well-being. As we keep saying to one another: “This will be a Christmas unlike any other.” (Except, for many of us, this will be a Christmas more like the lonely and isolated Christmases that so many suffer in silence and heartache each and every year. Christmases of the poor and the displaced—people like Mary and Joseph—are not new to the human experience, either.)
Christian worship lives out the fleshliness of the Incarnation. It happens (or at least has happened) in person, in the flesh, with touching and tasting and smelling and moving. Christian worship is embodied, and the living Christ is found in the ordinary stuff of life—water, bread, wine, touch, sight and sound. But the COVID-19 pandemic has hit a huge pause button on all of that as worship has gone online or, if in person, with all the danger of proximity and touching removed for the sake of safety. This year we will welcome the Christ child from a safe distance.
Before COVID-19 my typical week involved another ritual. I am a duplicate bridge fanatic. On Tuesday nights this meant walking or biking to Hart House at the University of Toronto to spend three hours in the close company of other duplicate bridge players. We sat close to each other—four at a table. We touched the same playing cards that others have touched. We shared snacks and handshakes. We were in each other’s space. It was its own set of rituals. And now it, too, has gone online.
Experts estimate it can take somewhere between 18 and 254 days to change a habit. It remains to be seen, both for the world of Christian worship and of duplicate bridge, what will emerge when COVID-19 has finally been tackled and suppressed. Will people return to the pews? Will they return to the bridge table? Will the opportunity to engage in Christian worship, or bridge, in one’s PJs with a hot cup of coffee (or an icy martini) at one’s side change habits? Will they come back? Is online the way of the future? Time will tell.
I know I miss in-person worship. I miss singing, and touching, and tasting, and smelling. But as much as I miss the bridge table, my new routine means I can play a game of bridge from my living room, with my daughter Rachel, who lives in Ottawa. Or with Lois, a new partner I’ve never met in person and wouldn’t recognize if I walked by her. Rituals have gone online. Will they ever come back in person? In the flesh? Have we entered into a permanently hybrid world of in-person and online? What have we gained? And what might we lose?
As this pandemic wears on, it seems we have discovered both the benefits and the limitations of the online world. Worship online is something, but is it the real thing? But will it attract newcomers and sustain congregations? Playing bridge all by one’s self is efficient and tidy. But will it attract newcomers and sustain clubs? Zoom meetings keep us off the roads and out of airplanes, but when might communities that only engage through “Hollywood Squares” mugshots start to fray?
This Advent, as we prepare for to celebrate the enfleshment of God in Jesus, we find ourselves in isolation and at a distance. But there are some very fleshy, earthy, real things we might do. Holy goats? Muletide greetings? H2OH? If you are reading this article, you almost certainly have received a copy of World of Gifts from the Primate’s World Relief & Development Fund, our Canadian Anglican humanitarian and development arm. (If not, you can find it here: pwrdf.org/world-of-gifts/) These gifts for those who live on the economic margins are also the real stuff of real life—animals for travel and sustenance and economic opportunity, water for health and possibility.
A world of gifts does await our generosity this season. From the poverty of our isolation, might we offer the hope of the Incarnation. Which is real. Which is fleshy. Which is Jesus. And from which no pandemic can separate us.
Canon David Harrison is the rector of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto and a member of the PWRDF Board of Directors. He is currently completing his doctoral thesis on online worship and the Eucharist.