I had two American icons on my mind during this wild week. On Thursday, I thought about Yogi Berra, who I must explain for the benefit of the younger members of the congregation was a famous baseball player and coach in New York, not a cartoon character.
Yogi Berra said many memorable things, but my favorite was “It’s like déjà vu all over again!”
Déjà vu all over again. That sums it up. Hearing that Mass was again closed to the public brought back painful memories from last March. It also was a harsh reminder that our view of the pandemic was too optimistic.
I must have New York on the brain, because the second American I thought about was the Broadway actress Elaine Stritch. In one of my favorite YouTube videos, the elderly star sings Stephen Sondheim’s show tune “I’m Still Here.”
When she belted out, “Good times and bad times, I've seen them all. And, my dear, I'm still here” she could look back at a pretty rough life. But she sang the last line of the song like a survivor. “I got through all of last year, and I'm here.”
On our parish feast day, we can certainly join in that chorus. We haven’t got through a year yet but we’re still here.
We’re still a strong loving community, praying and serving in new ways. We’re still here for one another and for those in need. And we’re still here around the altar, even virtually.
Yesterday I baptized the first child of a young couple whom I’d married a couple of years ago. Their wedding was like no other: they had their own private pandemic! Almost everyone in the wedding party and many members of the family fell victim to a virus.
It wasn’t, of course, the dreaded COVID-19 but good ol’ fashioned Norovirus. Which may not be as serious but is probably more infectious. People came straight from the emergency room to the church for a wedding that started two and a half hours late.
Yesterday, for a second time, the young couple were the victims of a virus – although perfectly healthy they were able to have only 9 guests at the baptism.
It would be easy to feel sorry for Damian and Erin. But don't be too quick to feel sorry. At both the wedding and the baptism, the circumstances required them to focus only on what matters most, the sacraments themselves. And that was a great blessing.
You’d think that was enough drama for one week. But before Dr. Bonnie Henry stopped speaking, I realized that the December 11 ordination of our own Deacon Richard Conlin might also face the 10-person limit. But there, too, is a challenge to go to the heart of the matter, however much we sympathize with his situation.
Like the young couple and their families, and Deacon Richard and his, our whole parish community has been challenged to focus on what matters most.
What does matter most? Is it the spirit of community? Is it the spirit of service? Is it the liturgy?
There can only be a one-word answer. That word is Jesus. Almost every aspect of church life can fall victim to external changes. But the King whom we celebrate today “is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
We can be cut off from one another. We can be deprived of the sacraments. But no external force can exile us from the Kingdom of God to which we are called in baptism.
Our second reading provides ample scriptural evidence of the Lordship of Christ our Redeemer. It leaves us in no doubt that all of history, including our recent history, is moving toward the day when the Son hands over to the Father the work He has completed.
Elsewhere, St. Paul asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” He answers, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35;38-39)
Brothers and sisters, we are being tested. So far it has not been the testing by fire that many endured in Britain and Europe as the bombs fell during the Second World War. It’s not an endurance test, at least not yet.
What’s being tested is our faith – not so much what we believe but how we live what we believe. How have we responded to our temporary freedom from the legal obligation to attend Sunday Mass? Has it been, at least some of the time, a relief?
Have we renewed or relaxed our dedication to Christ during these past months?
It’s too early to predict the future of our parish. It’s difficult to know whether the numbers who have responded to our “Every parishioner, every Sunday” initiative when added to those watching the livestream equal the ordinary Sunday congregation for the pandemic.
We may, for all I know, be in the process of becoming the smaller but holier church that the future Pope Benedict predicted in 1969 when he wrote, “But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”
One thing I know for sure: we’re still here. Christ the Redeemer Parish continues to strive to bring people closer to Jesus. We’ve neither abandoned our enthusiasm for evangelization nor given up our dedication to forming intentional disciples.
Some of the things we did in the past have become more difficult during the pandemic but others, thanks to the wonders of online meetings, have become easier.
When we are convinced that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, we proclaim Him, one way or another.
When we are convinced that He is the King who will judge us on how we treated Him in our brothers and sisters, we serve Him, one way or another.
The expectations of Christ our King seem high. Who among us can feed the poor, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner? I don’t know about you but if I did all that I would not have time to eat.
The marvelous thing about this parish community is that it does all those things, all the time. As our annual report makes clear, each one of these ministries is accomplished by one group of parishioners or another. And what some do with the support of all, all do.
Notice carefully that those on the left and those on the right hand of the Son of Man both ask Him, “When was it when we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” Both the sheep and the goats wonder when it was that they acted or failed to act.
You may not even have realized that you were caring for Christ in his brothers and sisters.
You may have been thinking only of refugees, shut-ins, children preparing for sacraments, men at the hostel, women in the downtown Eastside, lonely parishioners, or men and women in prisons.
Yet all the while, it was Christ Himself whom you – we – were supporting, teaching, feeding, and encouraging. What a sacred enterprise a parish can be!
We did a fair bit of planning for this parish feast day and I was pretty disappointed that we could not be together. But it’s a blessing to the extent that these painful circumstances challenge us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, so we can “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Like you I am very sorry about the restrictions and limitations we are facing as a church community. But please don’t tell me any of this can make us lose sight of Jesus.
God has a plan. Not my plan, not your plan, not Dr. Bonnie Henry’s plan. It’s a plan to restore all things in Christ – to seek out the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured. It’s a plan to draw us all into the Kingdom of God, where Christ is King forever.