Holy time

Refounding civic vocation in Lent

Lent calls us to re-focus. To revisit our relationships with each other and with God. This involves setting aside “holy time.” By painful absence, Francis Stewart rediscovers the importance of embodied fellowship, and is drawn to explore Shabbat and other practices that consecrate time. He finds that these kinds of holy time time can nourish what we might refer to as our civic vocation for the Common Good.

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. (John 4:21)

What do we make of these mysterious words in a time when a pandemic cruelly curtails us gathering together as religious communities? Even those of us who have been able to go to church physically are missing something, whether it is the hubbub of voices as the pews fill up, the singing, the sharing of a common cup, the sign of peace, or simply loitering over a cup of instant coffee afterwards.

The experience of being estranged from holy places is not foreign to our faith traditions. The Old and New Testaments are marked by traumatic losses – the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in both 586 BCE and 70 CE, and the mass displacement and exile that ensued. Such catastrophic events have profoundly influenced the growth of various religious movements, among them, Rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity.

Fr Michael Kirwan SJ writes that this fragile status of places of worship is palpable in much of what Jesus says, such as in the passage from John quoted above. In the accounts of Mark and Matthew, also, Jesus sounds almost irreverent towards the temple, speaking as if it is ‘neither here nor there’ to the kingdom that he announces.

Yet, surely he wasn’t announcing some kind of individualist spirituality, downloadable from the comfort of an armchair, or disassociated from a particular place or community. Kirwan describes such kinds of worship as ‘cultic’, and reminds us of the admonitions of the Major Prophets. They are often crying-out against God’s people about their vain sacrifices whilst injustice and corruption is rife:

I cannot endure solemnity combined with guilt rages Isaiah (1:12-15).

This is a challenge to the integrity of ritual without fellowship, to sacrifice without solidarity.

The Acts of the Apostles shows that gathering in the temple remained important to the early Christians, but this was alongside distributing their wealth according to need, and also, it seems, some kind of fellowship within the home:

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2: 46-47)

In the Roman Catholic Church to which I belong, celebration of Mass during lockdowns has been either via livestream or physically on a booking-only basis, with social-distancing, sanitising and masks, and without singing, the sign of peace, or lingering afterwards. During this time I have been a steward in the local parish, and I feel that something crucial has fallen through, lost between the options of online only or physical attendance for a determined few. I’m sure at some point someone may have described this loss as the ‘sacrament of everyday life.’

What is curtailed is the common life of a parish – nourished by the sacrament – which somehow happens in the ‘between times’ and the ‘between spaces’ – maybe in our social areas, clubs, volunteering. It is fragile, and even in normal times it can easily dissipate if Mass attendance is misunderstood as a kind of consumerism, as if the Eucharist were a box that simply needed ticking, before scarpering in advance of the final hymn!

For most Christians, the ability to continue to worship in person is surely a blessing. And many congregations have channeled their energies into food banks, neighbourhood support and phone-rounds in a valiant effort to maintain the sacramental despite the restrictions and risks. Yet I feel a paucity which is hard to put my finger on. M. C. Benitan does just that, in a reflection upon the Israelites taking unleavened bread with them in their hasty Exodus from Egypt:

We too had to put up the modified spiritual sustenance after hundreds of years of taking our regular nourishment (almost) for granted. The Eucharist became flattened on our computer screens, somehow unleavened by absence, making us ask questions. Are the flat screens just mirroring what has already happened somewhere in the heart of our hasty society, flattening the mystery of the divine banquet into a mere consumable? What is more, the heart-wrenching solitude of the Pope celebrating the Eucharist in an empty square, just like the solitude of so many priests streaming their socially vacant masses, struck a chord of grief. Despite the wonders of technology, the physical absence robbed the body of Christ of something embodied, and therefore fully human. Somehow, the absence of laity took away the yeast from the mix.

In a time when our relationship to places of worship is restricted, we might have gained a new appreciation of the importance of gathering together, and also rediscovered, by painful absence, the sense of fellowship and feast at the heart of embodied worship. It is no accident that Jesus spoke about worship in a moment of “holy time” embedded in his own Jewish tradition (the Passover), at a meal around a table with those he loved the most.

It can be hard to find refuge from the technological and transactional logics of the world – forces that separate humans from one another. The busyness of modern life, the long working hours, the relentlessness of online marketing, the ease of wireless tech, the endless media content that is all too easy to allow into our homes during our wearied weekends and mealtimes. All these put immense strain on family life and colonise our attention.

Places of worship can be and have been spaces of refuge from these things, but they are also vulnerable to erosion. Do our churches have the resilience of strong relationships that can withstand the logics of the world and the limits of lockdown? Do we have habits of love and reconciliation that endure no matter what? Do our congregations appreciate the wealth of their skill and goodwill, or do we too often default to the ‘priest as administrator’ mode? Could the click-and-collect logic of consumerism be projecting itself onto how we view Holy Communion?

When stewarding at services, it occurred to me that my masked presence at the door, ticking people off, insisting on sanitising and following the one-way system, probably made the experience of going to Mass feel that slight step closer to the experience of going to the supermarket. Sacred space has always been fragile, but now more than ever when the threat of the pandemic complicates any form of communal gathering.

In such circumstances, as with religious exile, time becomes more precious, a refuge: time ‘spent’ together and with God. Holy time is ‘unmediated’ time, with no devices, no media.

In conversations with friends connected with Together for the Common Good during the lockdown, discussion about our civic vocation for the common good converged on this understanding of time. Are we spending enough holy time forging genuine relationships with each other and with God? Or have we fallen into what Pope Francis calls “empty activism”, administering projects and campaigns without building resilient relationships? Frankly confronting the futility of our activism can also awaken us to the fruitfulness of placing our efforts in rhythm with the heart of God.

We explored how some of our religious customs which seek to consecrate time might speak to this. Partly in response to exile, practices were developed in order to embed “holy time” in our lives: in Judaism there is the Passover, Shabbat, Hanukkah, each with non-negotiable rules. Hearing of the beauty and intensity of Shabbat is humbling for a Christian, although the rebellion of holy time is also present in our practices of pilgrimage, communal acts of worship, prayer groups and retreats.

These practices are times set-apart, mercifully mandatory moments to down tools and stop the clock, to put away work and the concerns of the world for a while. They are profound and vital times of rest for the human soul. They are counter-cultural acts of resistance against the forces that are seeking to colonise human life.

These obstinate times of togetherness, unmediated by media or money, are regarded as utterly useless in the contractual logic that underpins our marketised society. Let’s protect our worship from consumerism and be bold enough to be ‘useless’ in the face of society, even just for a short time. Christ invites us to grow as a people, through spending holy time together. Our listening to God together draws us in closer to his heart’s desire for us.

Francis Stewart

This was written as Lent 2021 approaches, a period of fasting and solemnity unlike any other we have experienced before. Until we can gather again, is this a time to hold prayerfully our restless longing to be together?

We invite you to use T4CG’s Lent Devotions to hold this period of fasting as holy time, to go on a journey of holiness in order to increase your trust in God. Use it however you wish: the resource gives you a simple weekly framework of scripture, reflections, prayers and actions to help you deepen your awareness of what God is doing in your life and the person you are called to be in Christ. 

This article was featured in the Lent 2021 edition of the T4CG Newsletter.