Today some thoughts inspired by words from Tomas Halik professor of sociology at Charles University, Prague and university chaplain. During the Communist regime Tomas Halik was active in the “underground church,” in the former Czechoslovakia.
After this global Covid-19 experience, which may last a couple years, the world won’t be the same as it was before. We will never again return to “normal life.” At best, perhaps, there will be a new normal. As an historical theologian, I ask what kind of challenge this situation presents for Christianity, for Christian believers, and for the institutional church.
Pope Francis said the church should be a “field hospital.” Tomas Halik observed: “as a good hospital, the church must also fulfill other tasks. It has a diagnostic role to play (identifying the “signs of the times”), a preventive role (creating an “immune system” in a society in which the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife) and a convalescent role (overcoming the traumas of the past by forgiveness).”
Currently there are no services in thousands of churches on several continents. Thinking about this, while listening to the bells calling from a local church, the thought struck me: those empty churches today are truly a special sign for all who call themselves Christian.
Maybe empty church buildings symbolically expose a contemporary problem that many “Christians” are rather empty themselves. They talk of Christianity but their actions hardly reflect the Spirit and message of Christ. The daily news and social media feature these people every day. Some make a lot of noise even within the White House.
I belong to a church reform organization. For decades I have been very active in “church reform” movements. But the bells have been ringing in my head — perhaps my reform efforts and those of my reform-minded colleagues have been out of focus. Structural reforms (women in ministry, moving beyond clericalism, welcoming and affirming LGBT people, etc.) are of course very important. They mean absolutely nothing, however, unless they spring from changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed behavior…..all from renewed spirits and a clear Christian vision.
Maybe the empty churches should remind us of the empty tomb we pondered this past Easter. Recall, for example in Mark 16, the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here! See the place where they laid him. Go tell the disciples he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him….”
Now, we live in Covid-19 estrangement, fear, uncertainty, and yes, sorry to say, dangerous angry protests and demonstrations. Symbolically, but really, this is perhaps our contemporary Galilee. The message remains clear, even if people have clouded eyes and shaky nerves. We have not been abandoned by God. Jesus raised from the dead lives here and lives with us right now.
Some are already saying, as a friend said yesterday, empty and silent churches are a temporary situation, soon to be forgotten. Frankly, I don’t think so….The pandemic may indeed last into 2021; but the emptiness can last much longer.
Like my local church bells still ringing on the hour, the call now is to renew ourselves with a new Christian identity in a world which is being radically transformed before our eyes. Yes we can live with a new spirit, a new heart, a new security that is anchored in active Christian faith, hope, and care. Genuine Christianity is not about authoritarian power over people. It is not about observing, on TV or Facebook, solitary rituals carefully executed by colorfully dressed clerics. It is about people interacting (now safely) with other people. It is about human and humane behavior: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, mutual support.
Let’s not forget Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you did not take me in, I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” And they too will reply,”Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then the Lord will answer, “I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
And so with faith and hope we strive to be Christian in this time of sickness…….