When I arrived at S. Bart’s just over six years ago, it was clear that we would face many challenges together. It never occurred to me that one of them would be a time of global pandemic, during which public worship would be suspended, not only in our diocese, but across most of the Anglican world.
This is certainly a time of anxiety: not only are we facing isolation at home and a sense of helplessness in the face of a novel form of contagion, but some of our parishioners also have family abroad facing challenges in getting back to Canada. It is quite natural that we should feel anxious at such a time. But we must also remember that, in some ways, the current crisis is really bringing to the fore something that is, in fact, true for us every day — in good times as well as bad.
Just three short weeks ago each of us knelt at the altar rail and received on our foreheads the ashes that mark the beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage. ‘Dust thou art’, we were told, ‘and unto dust shalt thou return.‘ Could we have been given a clearer reminder of this fundamental truth than the current crisis? Most years it is possible for us to give a nodding assent to our mortality on Ash Wednesday, and then to get on with preparing for Easter without giving it a second thought. This year it is not so: each day this Lent has been to us a reminder of the frailty of human life, and of our ultimate inability to thwart death.
Yet the reality that we are taught on Ash Wednesday is only part of the truth — it is not, as they say, the whole story. We are indeed creatures made of clay, and we shall all return to our parent dust. Yet the whole of our nature has been taken into God in the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God: in that Incarnation, Life Himself — the One who Is Life essentially — has imparted His own eternal Life to us. This is not some vague hope for a continuance of our current life in the same form after death — it is the beginning, here and now, of a higher Life, a Life that is a participation in the very Life of God. Moreover, for the Christian, this Life is already a present reality, so that we can say, with St Paul: ‘our conversation’ — that is, our whole way of life — ‘is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20). We live in time, yet we dwell, here and now, mysteriously but truly, in eternity. And this is why, for the Christian, as I said on Ash Wednesday, the first lesson of the Spiritual Life is to learn that we are radically contingent — we are not our own cause, and we cannot preserve ourselves for eternity. But we must learn this lesson precisely so that the One who can draw us into His own eternity may be allowed to do so, unhampered by our attempts to create a doomed attempt to reach a Heaven of our own devising.
How appropriate that we should be meditating upon these truths on the eve of Laetare Sunday, when we contemplate the freedom, the right order, and the beauty of the Heavenly Jerusalem. That City which is the Mother of us all is being created in and through us even now, and even in this time when we cannot meet for worship in each other’s physical presence. It is not in place that we are together, as St Augustine taught us, for God is more present to each of us than we are to our very selves, and thus we are more present to one another in Christ’s Body — even when we are prevented from receiving Our Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar — than physical proximity can ever make us. We remain a parish in the midst of our separation — the Mass is still being said, and the daily Offices are still recited. I invite you all to join us in worship online on our YouTube channel, and in other ways as we work them out.
Please keep in touch with me, and with one another, throughout this time. If you are in sickness or sorrow, please let me know. Our Bishop has expressly made provision at this time for the clergy to take the Holy Communion to parishioners in their homes, especially in time of illness. Please also remember that the Sacrament of Unction or anointing of the sick is available upon request. This must not be understood as a sacrament reserved for the very end of life, but is suitable during any serious illness, and I encourage you all to make use of it when you are in such a case.
I commend to your notice the items below, in which you will find ways to remain active in the parish in safe ways until the end of the current crisis. Please be assured of my prayers for you all. Please pray for me, for one another, for our bishops, and for our civic officials. And let us pray that the Mass and the Most Holy Sacrament may soon be restored to us in our parish and diocese. Oh what our joy and our glory then must be!
In the Lord,
Father Walter Hannam