The weight of attending Mass for those who cannot
The cathedral was dark, cold and empty. It was a stark contrast to past Palm Sundays when we entered St. James Cathedral in Seattle as a sea of joyous believers waving our palm fronds through a tunnel of trumpeters. Three weeks prior, our Archbishop Paul Etienne suspended Masses throughout the archdiocese, the first in the country to do so, as the crush of coronavirus engulfed our country, our lives and our faith. I had never before experienced our parish this vacant. It was eerie.
My family had been watching the streamed services from home until our 80-year-old priest invited my husband, me and our two sons to read the Scriptures and prayers for the streaming Mass. At home on Sundays, it had been consoling to see the faces of other families we knew read on camera, but I’d felt a bit of envy. I wished I was there in our second home, our parish. I wished to be there for the Eucharist. But when we arrived and stood there in that space, just seven of us in a cathedral that seats over 1,000 people, I felt a spiritual heaviness. We were holding a space for those who could not be there.
I often think of the journalist James Foley who, when he returned from captivity by Libyan forces, said he felt the prayers of the faithful at home, prayers that sustained and strengthened him. He had discovered the mystical power of prayer, a force that binds us together. When he was later captured by ISIS, who would eventually murder him, I hoped he felt our prayers again. I prayed that the peace from the Body of Christ overpowered the evil that surrounded him.
We rely on the rest of the church to nourish us in prayer.
There are times when we cannot pray our own prayers. When we are weak. When we are lost. When we do not have the words. In those times, we rely on the rest of the church to nourish us in prayer. Our greatest prayer is the Eucharist.
Last Palm Sunday, as part of that small number of parishioners able to take the Eucharist, I felt that holy burden to be present in the Presence for those who could not be there. Just as our priest would, by celebrating the Mass alone each morning for weeks during the beginning of the pandemic. It was an act of defiance in the face of evil. It was an act of hope.
On Pentecost, the state allowed our parish to hold small Masses outside. My family is healthy and low-risk. My husband and I felt convicted to make reservations and continue to hold a space for those who could not attend. The temperature in Seattle was still chilly that late May morning, and of course it rained on us in the middle of Mass, but we were thrilled to be among our church family, to see their smiling eyes in their masked faces.
As an icy wind whipped through the worshipers, we couldn’t help but recognize that the early church celebrated that first Pentecost in a much tougher setting. Although we rejoiced as we hadn’t for months, our celebration was muted knowing that there were others who were at home, unable to taste, see and touch this Body.
My family has continued to attend Mass every single Sunday since. I wait to make reservations till later in the week, just in case space is needed for others, but there has always been a place for us.
I look to the future, when God’s people re-enter the church, renewed, refined and restored.
It is an honor to take the Eucharist each week, and as our priest recites the prayer “for our good and the good of all God’s holy church,” I pray that those at home are sustained and strengthened by our prayers. I pray this act of worship will hold us together when we are apart.
So much of our theology as a church depends on this very moment, this mystical moment when we are not only in communion with God but the church as a whole. I am connected not only to my parishioners but to the global church; the grandmother whispering over candles in the Philippines, with the families in China living under persecution and because the Eucharist is timeless or part of the panorama of salvation history, I am connected to James Foley, in his last moments and the early church on that first Pentecost.
This is the mystery of our faith—the very words spoken during Mass to remind us. This real presence of Christ is the very core, crux and heart of our faith. When we are together, not just in spirit but in body, we experience this mystery in a more significant way. The prayers of the Mass remind us as we partake of the body and blood of Christ that we are gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.
As I take the host each week, I look to the future, to Christ’s second coming, the marriage supper of the lamb, when all creation will be reconciled, when evil and sin will no longer separate us from experiencing God fully. But I also look to the nearer future, when God’s people re-enter the church, renewed, refined and restored. The Spirit in me has been aching for the Spirit in you.
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