StickFiguresOne of of the practices at our parish during the great Easter Vigil is to have those in attendance walk past the font, dip our fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on the person next in line.

People mostly carry out this ritual by signing their loved ones or close friends. But this time, while my wife and I dutifully stood in line, the queue dissolved a bit into a crowd of random members of the faithful, separating this loving couple’s duo. I admit some apprehension at the thought of having to touch the forehead of a complete stranger behind me. I didn’t even bother to glance behind me to see what was in store as I drew nearer the font, and I was a bit amused as a looked ahead to see my wife’s reaction when she turned to see someone 6 inches taller than me waiting for her blessing.

My turn came, and I also was greeted by someone who looked nothing like me who placed the sign of the cross on my forehead, and as I returned the gesture to the person behind me, a question wafted through the air (along with the incense) – ‘Just what was I afraid of? WHO was I afraid of?’

Fear dominates us these days – fear of losing our jobs, fear of not being able to provide for our families, fear of being killed by some wacko terrorist. This fear spawns a more subtle though insidious emotion – suspicion. It is not enough that we fear the unseen, we now suspect those we can see of ill intent, especially those whose background doesn’t line up with ours.

The gestures during the Liturgy of the Mass should be the small step we need to take to keep fear, especially fear of those who we don’t know, at bay. But even our Americanized Catholicism has to work a bit harder to make certain that faith triumphs over the culture that seems too enamored with independence and isolation.

I remember the days in the early  70’s during the reform of the structure of the Mass. Change was hard, especially for the older pastors. I distinctly remember the monsignor carefully instructing the faithful about how his parish was going to implement the sign of peace.

Upon prompting from the celebrant, persons on the right side of the church were to turn to those on the left, and say “Peace be with you”; those on the left side would then turn to those on the right and reply, “and with your spirit”. (It’s a good thing he wasn’t celebrating the liturgy in a worship space in the round — the exercise would probably have ended up being an early version of the wave as the greeting would continually circle about the church.) I think that lasted for a year or so before people actually started shaking hands, a little stiffly, grudgingly, perhaps, but still a gesture that forced us to look at something besides our worship guides.

What is it about us that moves us to resist touching another human? Is it possible that our love-affair with our personal space helps make fear and suspicion so easy for us?

And what do with our gestures of touch during the celebration of the Mass and other sacred events have to do with how we behave in our politically charged environment?

Much, I think.

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Our liturgical practices are spawned by the message of the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice. That message and example of sacrifice demands that we break down barriers with those suspected of being unclean, of bad behavior, of incorrect values. The same inspiration that moves us to make contact with others in our church MUST inform our behavior in American civil society, especially now, before we discover that our fear-motivated behaviors have taken us to a dark place from which there is no easy return.

Fears have always been with us. What is so dangerous today is our penchant to blame our fear on somebody else – somebody different, someone who may not look or act exactly like we do, someone who resembles an evil-doer. And for some of us, resemblance is good enough justification for mistrust and suspicion.

This suspicion and mistrust has become a rallying point for those who want to lead our civil government (should ‘mistrust’ and ‘civil’ be in the same sentence?). We have seen leaders who thrive on fear through much of history. Such episodes began very badly for those considered outsiders, and ended tragically for everyone else concerned.

Is it possible that the same same hesitancy to make contact with those around us, the same tendency to stay within ourselves to the point of avoiding eye contact with those we don’t know, the same proliferation of technologies that conflate smart-phone delivered bubble-text with meaningful dialogue,  are behaviors that provide fertile ground for suspicion and fear of those who we don’t allow into our emotional space?

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And yet, it is easy for us to suspend our much needed sense of isolation when it comes down to the relationships that are truly important to us.

When we hear the news of family members encountering serious illness or tragedy, the first thing we are pushed to do is the find them and embrace them, holding onto them, hoping in some way to move their pain onto our own burden.

Is it even possible to think of a parent who can’t hug a son or daughter as they get married, celebrate the joy of parenthood, welcome their return upon military deployments, or welcome their triumph over health challenges?

But while I am not an expert on Scripture, I do not recall any of Jesus’ examples that call us to connect only with those who we know and like.

As I visit my 94 year old dad at his care facility run by the Brothers of Mercy, I am moved when I see some of the elderly residents become disoriented or afraid, and witness the brief miracle that happens when a staff member simply reaches out to gently pat their hand. Just that simple gesture of touch seems to do wonders for those confronting the fear of circumstances beyond their control.

During a recent visit to my dad and a couple of ladies (the average age being somewhere north of 88) at his dinner table, we had a lively chat that included a fair number of good-natured jokes poked at each other. As I stood up to leave, one of the ladies looked up and asked, “Can I have a hug?” I don’t know what moved me more, the need she had for a brief moment of human-ness, or the privilege I felt in having a practical stranger ask me for the gift of a gentle embrace.

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It is a crazy world out there. Our technologies, while providing tools that allow us to briefly overcome limitations of distance, often make it too easy to remain ‘virtually’ connected while physically distant. Our politics too often call us to suspect, blame, and fear them, the outsider, the person who is different.

And yet our Church, our liturgies, our gestures, call us to connect with each other, reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, we are all called to move from isolation to connection with everyone God has placed in this garden we call Earth.

So what should we remember, the next time we are to hold hands during the Lord’s prayer, exchange the sign of peace, or sign the cross on another?

  • We probably won’t die from the gesture. Yes, such acts should be suspended during cold and flu season and those contagious are excused from outreach. But, generally speaking, most people survive the ordeal.
  • Reverse the perspective. Think of how we would want to be seen through the eyes of the stranger standing next to us. For God’s sake (really, for God’s sake), smile at the opportunity to break down a barrier for just those few seconds.
  • Move the experience of church into the multi-cultural, multi-religious, noisy, messy, community setting that we have been blessed with. We can muster the strength to connect with those who share our religious tradition, but we are also called to connect with those who aren’t like us.

We believe our faith and commitment to the Gospel drives behavior that gives encouraging, hopeful witness in world of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities, a witness that is especially important during times of great change and turmoil.

What does the sign of peace, grasping hands during the Lord’s prayer, and signing the cross on the forehead of a stranger, have to do with our response to terrorism, economic uncertainty, and cultural change?

Nothing, if the only hands we grasp are of those who remind us of us.

 

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