The first weekend of quarantine, my husband and I decided we were not going to attend Mass. Things weren’t publicly suspended yet in our diocese, but I’d just returned home from Missouri and was self-isolating for fear I’d been exposed to COVID-19 while traveling. We watched Mass using the CatholicTV app and made a spiritual Communion.
The second weekend of quarantine, with the dispensation from the bishop in place and rumors Mass would be canceled publicly in the coming week, we still stayed home. At 13 weeks pregnant, with a squirmy toddler who has never met a stranger, I was hesitant to pile into crowded pews.
Here we are, 10 weeks later, Louisiana is in phase 2 of reopening, and part of me is still hesitant to return now that 50% capacity is allowed in the buildings.
I miss the Eucharist, desperately. The last time I received Jesus was in an airport chapel. My hunger for the Lord is intense, weighing heavy on my heart. But I hesitate to go back to Mass, not just for fear of the virus, but because of a worry that Mass won’t feel like Mass in the way I want.
There will be all the familiar Mass parts, though we won’t sing, we’ll be donning masks and the toddler’s favorite part (the sign of peace) will be omitted. Jesus will still be present, the Eucharist still given to us, our knees still on the ground as we pray and worship, and what good news that is!
But will it feel the same? After nearly three months away, will I feel the same? Will I be relieved we are home, happy to be back in the church where we were married, our daughter baptized, where I’ve gone my whole life?
Or will I be anxious the entire time, nervous my 2 1/2-year-old will touch someone, lick the pew or run off at top speed, her mask flying in the wind? Will I be at peace as I sit down in our favorite spot or stressed by the distanced assigned seating, staring at dear friends I haven’t seen in weeks wearing colorful masks with only their eyes visible?
But perhaps, after weeks of uncertainty and nearly unhealthy doses of hopelessness, church is precisely the place we can bring those feelings — anxiety, fear and nervousness — and lay it down at the altar.
Even if the common things we’ve grown used to are gone, like handshakes at the sign of peace, coffee and donuts in the narthex, and even choosing our own seat (by friends with whom we go to brunch after), we are still gathering to worship the Lord in the way he invites us to: at the altar, in community, receiving his precious body and blood. That remains unchanged, constant and steady, a source to give us life and a summit we can approach with great joy.
When things change in life, big or small, I find it best to approach that change by first acknowledging my anxiety and fears, giving myself permission to “feel my feelings.” As I do, there’s a chance to think through the experience that’s coming my way. In some sense, by first allowing myself to be nervous and worried, calm and peace is then possible.
So too with returning to Mass. We can cling to what is sure to never change — the Eucharist being present — and then we can calmly think through the various scenarios of what may look, feel and even sound different.
As I ponder what may feel different, and give myself permission to be worried or anxious about what our first Mass back may look like, I can’t help but think of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.
The apostles huddled together not knowing what was to come but were confident of Jesus’ promises, even in their anxious hiding. Then, in the most unexpected of moments, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they experience the power of God in a new way, one they never could have predicted, and they rush to the streets to preach, baptize, heal and literally change the world with the Gospel.
Perhaps then this moment of returning to worship at Mass — even with the necessary changes like signing up online a week before, sitting every other pew, wearing a mask, not singing and having to postpone our usual large parish gatherings — will be a chance to experience God’s power in a new way, giving us strength to continue bringing the Gospel to the world.
It’s OK if we are nervous. It can give way to hope. It’s good that we are cautious. It can give way to joy.
It’s expected for us to be unsure of what to do as things feel and look different, but one thing is certain and unchanging: Jesus will be present in the Eucharist, and we will get to receive him. Mask wearing, no sign of peace, no singing and assigned seating or not, Jesus will be there — and God’s power will pour into our hearts in a new, yet familiar way.