God is in the Temple
“And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples…and said, ‘Men and brethren, I have received notice from the authorities…We are about to be indicted for not observing social distancing here in this upper room…As you know, there is sickness all over the Holy City, by reason of this virus, which apparently came here from Moab…We cannot, for the sake of conscience, have Pentecost. Gather in your homes (but for heaven’s sake, do not, I say, do not kiss the icons) and celebrate a virtual Pentecost…Please, do not blame me. I am just a lowly Apostle, and I can do nothing. I have no authority to defy the legitimate civil government…Let us put on our masks and go out quietly, not disturbing our neighbors…If and when the government thinks it is safe to do so, we will assemble here again for the coming of the Holy Spirit.”
A retired priest in our archdiocese published this provocative letter for our times. Of course, it is imaginative. Maybe it is extreme, but it is valuable if for no other reason than to stir us up. We have difficult decisions to make in life and it is often unclear how we should proceed. I have so many mixed emotions after being quarantined from Covid for the past two weeks. Mostly, I feel humbled and grieved. Is two weeks so long to go without the Sacraments? We can survive a couple weeks. Yet, this time away from the sacraments must challenge us. Why do we need the sacraments? Why do we need the community? How must we live as Christians in 2021 and stay anchored through all the trials ahead?
Do we need to worship in these walls? Governor Ralph Northam does not think so. While reinforcing restrictions on churches in Virginia, their governor commented: “This year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are.” What do we make of this? Set aside the most obvious question: why on earth is a politician making this sort of statement. These words, this sentiment, this feeling so strong in our country, sounds quaint and comforting. In very fact, this is a heresy of the most abominable and destructive kind. This is the diabolical seduction of the times, and it is the lie addressed today in our Epiphany reading.
God is in the temple. God is in the Church. Healing, Forgiveness, Transformation, and Salvation must be found here, within the Holy Liturgy and the shared life of God’s people.
“And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple” (Luke 2:42-52).
They were celebrating. In those times, it was normal for children in traveling caravans to visit with cousins or aunts and uncles. It was known that the relatives all looked out for one another, and a boy was safe to disappear for a little while. At first, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph had no reason to be anxious. After a day, when they had still not seen him, they started to get nervous. They asked around. No one had seen Christ. They searched everywhere. He was gone. How does a mom or dad feel when one’s child is missing for a single hour? Can you imagine the parental anguish? At last, they found their son, and their Savior. They found him in the temple. That is where we will find Christ.
The Church Fathers explain this passage as an allegory of the soul. Over these past several days, I had a lot of time to reflect. It would be a lie to say my family and I were uncomfortable during our quarantine. Indeed, there is always something positive in every situation. My son, Kevin, put it in words this weekend as only a child could. “Papa, why do you have to go back to work? I wish we had Covid all the time so we could always stay home.” We had fun. We could stay up late. We had fewer responsibilities. There is a seductive, cozy appeal to staying in, in one’s PJ’s, on a Sunday morning, and I get how easily one can slip in that habit.
Extend this feeling to the rest of the American people. On the one hand, a lot of families have benefited from getting more time together. At the same time, 2020 ushered in a subtle, creeping lethargy. The numbers are shocking. Recent studies report that 22% of former, church-going Christians have dropped out entirely since Covid-19: this means participation of any kind — physical, digital, in-person or virtual. At first they streamed in Sunday worship. Then they streamed in more entertaining shows, and soon dropped religion entirely. On average, attendance in churches after reopening is at 36%. In 2019, 14% of US adults said they never went to church. In 2020, that number rose to 53%. Statisticians do not expect these numbers to climb. This is what they now call the “new norm.” After all, staying home is just so comfortable. There is something refreshing about watching Mass in one’s slippers and bathrobe. There is something delightful about avoiding people and reading the Word alone, while one sips a warm, frothy beverage.
Our culture will not “go back to normal” after this epidemic. We must determine our own culture. Call the heresy whatever you like: “I don’t need religion.” “I have a private relationship with God.” “I can have God alone, on my own.” This heresy is too thrilling, too warm and cozy. We have been sipping the Kool-Ade for years, and now we have a better excuse than ever to stay home. We have lost Christ and do not know it. Flannery O’Conner predicted this long ago: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” We must wake up. What kind of year will we make in 2021?
The Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph woke up. They realized Christ was no longer in their midst. They looked around. He was gone. Origin the theologian explains:
“He is not found among the famous of the world, because He is above all fame. He is not found in the company of those traveling; they find him nowhere but in the Temple. And you must therefore seek Him there in the Temple, seek Him in the Church, where you will find the Word and the Wisdom of Christ, that is, of the Son of God.”
This Epiphany season calls our hearts to contemplate the Incarnation. God is no longer invisible. God is in our midst. He is flesh. He is body and blood. Where? Right here, in his sanctuary, in the sacraments, in the body of believers who come together to love one another. As the Epiphany waters splash against our faces, this message must dose our souls. Are you searching for God? Search for him in the temple.
There is no Christianity where there are no Christians — Christians gathered together, working together, forgiving together, socializing and breaking bread together. Fr. Patrick Reardon, the priest who wrote the letter quoted earlier, was making a point. I do not think he believes we should jettison the face masks. He understands the need to take precautions, to be mindful of health, and to quarantine at times. Yet, his point is clear. First and foremost, we must be the Church.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles… And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2: 42-47).
“Brethren, let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
It is so good to be back. May our Lord and Savior nurture within us, in 2021, true Christian hearts and true Christian community as we come together to seek Him in His temple.