Sunday, March 8, 2020

Lent 2020: Faith the Size of a Mustard Seed; Fear the Size of a Virus

"And Jesus took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to his disciples, and they were all going to drink from it, until Jesus stopped them, saying, 'This is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many. I was going to have you all drink from the cup, but there's a nasty bug going around, so never mind.'"
~ The Gospel of Things Jesus Never Said
I'm equally bewildered and discouraged when I see how easily manipulated most people are. You really see it when, like my family, you don't watch TV. When you go out amongst the public and they're all spouting opinions on some passing trend you haven't even heard about, you know without a doubt that they got it from someone on television. They don't call it programming for nothing.

Recent examples include the corporate media's collusion with the donors behind the Democratic Party to coalesce support around Joe Biden, a man who appears to be in cognitive decline and who barely registered in the early polls and primaries. But when Bernie Sanders was making too much headway in the early primary and caucus contests, the DNC orchestrated a psychological coup by having most of its presidential candidates drop out on the eve of Super Tuesday and getting them all to endorse Biden en masse.

Combine that with the predictable smears against Sanders, including the "socialism" bogeyman in a nation where people can't tell the difference between social democracy and totalitarian Stalinism, and the old McCarthyist dog whistle from 2016 that says "anyone who disagrees with me is a Russian bot," and you've just manufactured consent for rallying around the former VP. The media paints a picture of Democratic unity around Biden, and low-information voters dutifully go out and pull the lever for him.

And thus are the neoliberal policies of the donor class protected for another election cycle. Their policies might continue to crush the poor and working class as they have for decades now, but at least the rich can still get richer and continue to buy legislation. Sure, backing such a weak candidate means the plutocrats might lose to Trump, but they don't care about that. The important thing is that Sanders has once again been marginalized, right along with Tulsi Gabbard. One presumes that Biden's campaign slogan will be something like "At Least He's Not Trump" -- because he really doesn't have anything else to run on. But that's OK with all the lesser-evil voters who are already shaming people into falling in line in November.

The masses have been given their marching orders, and as usual, they are dutifully complying. Whoever controls the narrative controls the world, as they say.

Same goes for COVID-19, the virus that everyone is freaking out about. And why are they freaking out? Because the news fans the panic and hysteria around the clock, in an attempt to keep you glued to the set. Once they have you held captive, their ratings go up and they can sell you stuff.

And boy, manufacturers of bottled water and toilet paper must be thrilled, as people conditioned by their TVs to panic descend on grocery stores and fight each other for the last roll of Charmin on the shelves.

People are easy to manipulate and control. Politicians know this. The media knows this. That's why both hold so much power over people's lives.

I saw the panic and hysteria beginning to creep in to our neck of the woods a few weeks ago, when our priest tried to nip things in the bud by giving the congregation a quick public-service announcement on how to prevent the spread of illness. He also very wisely advised everyone to turn off the news. Yes, there's a virus going around. Yes, people are getting sick. But overreacting helps no one.

His advice was sensible. It's cold and flu season. Take any sensible precautions that you normally would. Freaking out will only make things worse.

And so it was with surprise when I walked into our church this morning to find the holy water fonts inside the main doors empty. In place of the water where we dip our fingers to make the sign of the cross were packets of hand wipes and bottles of sanitizer.

This didn't bode well, I thought.

Then moments after we sat down, our priest came out in front of the altar and announced that the bishop had ordered several changes to the Mass for the immediate future. The bishop ordered all holy-water fonts to be drained. He told people not to shake hands during the sign of peace. He banned reception of the communion host on the tongue, limiting it to distribution in the hand only. And he also banned the administration of wine altogether, as we all drink from a common cup.

This, after our priest encouraged us just a few weeks earlier to turn off the news and not panic.

Granted, the bishop is his boss. And as a former military guy and a clergyman trained in obedience, our priest was never going to go against his boss' orders.

A weird vibe hung over the entire Mass. I know I wasn't the only one who felt it. I don't know what others were thinking about all this, but my first thought was that the leaders of our diocese had abandoned faith in favor of fear. The church is supposed to be a place of hope. It's the place many people come for comfort. Their sanctuary. And now things that are very important to their faith are being taken away from them.

Our priest, to his credit, tried to spin the directive as keeping with the Catholic tradition of balancing faith with reason. But changing the entire order of the Mass so dramatically and suddenly revealed no such balancing act whatsoever. In fact, it suggested quite boldly that the church doesn't really believe what it teaches. Is holy water truly blessed, or is it just a bowl of dirty water? Is the consecrated wine truly the sacred Blood of Christ, or is it still just plain old wine? Do we as a church believe in the Real Presence or not? If you really think you're distributing the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ at communion, how could you think that receiving the essence of God Incarnate could make you ill?

Sitting next to someone at church could get you sick. Touching a pew or a missal or a statue or a doorknob that someone else touched could get you sick. Using the church restroom could get you sick. If you're that worried about illness, you might as well just shut down the church completely. Sadly, that's what the city of Rome has done, and I wouldn't be surprised to see forced church closures elsewhere.

None of this even takes into account the antiseptic qualities of both the alcohol in the wine and the precious metals used in the chalice, or the fact that the chalice is wiped with a cloth and rotated after each person drinks from it. More than 20 years ago, the American Journal of Infection found that people who receive communion wine from a common cup as often as once a day were at no higher risk of contracting an infection than people who don't even attend church services.

I'm reminded that the Bible tells us more than 80 times to not fear. I'm reminded that we're told to have faith. I'm reminded that Jesus healed the same lepers that no one in society would approach. I'm reminded that St. Charles Borromeo brought communion to victims of the plague in Milan, when even doctors refused to treat the ill.

Of course, if you feel sick or your immunity is compromised, it makes sense to use your best judgment on whether you should go out in public at all. But being in the presence of the divine is not a place where we should have to bring our concerns about illness. The Eucharist is medicine, not poison. And following the actions of our bishop, I can't help wondering if the complaints that traditional Catholics often raise against the modern church don't have some validity. Traditionalists often say that modern reforms have taken away the sacredness of the Mass and, with it, a deep sense of enduring faith. Because if you truly, in your heart, believe that what's in that chalice is what you say is in that chalice, you wouldn't ban its use out of fear of infection. You might counsel people to use their own discretion, but to remove the choice to receive completely from the entire diocese comes across as nothing else but a heavy-handed action based in fear, one that displays a distressing lack of faith. Anyone in the pews who is already struggling with his or her faith is going to stumble over seeing the church take such an action. After all, if the church has so little faith, why should that person?

The bottom line is that for the church to ban holy water and the Blood of Christ suggests both a striking lack of faith and a capitulation to fear. It's as if the church doesn't really believe that the Precious Blood is what it says it is.

In striking contrast, I came across a missive from the London and Western Europe Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The letter was shared by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., and addressed the church's approach to the virus. It reads in part:
The Church of Christ has endured through many centuries -- in the course of which she has been confronted with countless illnesses and diseases, small and great -- in solid faith and with peaceful hearts, each member of the Church knowing that he or she is part of no worldly or man-made institution, but the Harbour of Life that is Christ’s Body. We are fed the food not of men but of angels; we are inspired by the truth, not of this world, but of God Himself; and we are ruled, not by worldly fear which grows and begets more fear, but by the peace of Christ which surpasseth all understanding (Philippians 4:7) and brings unfailing comfort, whether in times of peace or peril. In the present moment, therefore, I urge you to be not afraid (Isaiah 43:1) nor let the concerns of the moment shake you from the firm foundation that is unhindered faith in the living God, Who heals the sick and restores the broken-hearted. The present situation may be a cause of great upset in the world around us, but in the Church, and in our Christian lives, we continue unhindered and undeterred in all that God has delivered into our hands for the salvation of our souls. 
[...] In our churches, we shall continue with the celebration of all our rites, customs, Divine Services and above all the offering and receipt of the Holy Mysteries in precisely the same manner as we have always done. No genuinely believing Christian can for one moment accept that the Holy Mysteries might bring or be the source of sickness or ill-health: by no means! The Mysteries of Christ are the true medicine of our souls and bodies, and bring nothing but life -- and life eternal. Any whose hearts are troubled by present matters should pray fervently for an increase of faith so that fear can be cast aside; and the Church will continue her ancient witness to the love that is beyond fear, bringing the Holy Mysteries to the world, and to each of us, in a time when it needs them profoundly.  
Do not be afraid!
Likewise, over in France, Bishop Pascal Roland has expressed his criticism of the decision to shutter all churches in Rome and has promised not to cave in to the hysteria. He vowed not "to prescribe the closing of churches, the suppression of masses, the abandonment of the gesture of peace during the Eucharist, the imposition of such or such mode of communion deemed more hygienic, because a church is not a place of risk, but a place of salvation."

If we lack enough Catholic bishops brave enough to stand up for the faith, then perhaps it's time to give Orthodoxy another look. But stuff like this is the reason I ultimately hold to my own beliefs, taking what works from the churches I've visited and studied and making them my own. Because sooner or later, the institutional church will always disappoint you.

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