At the March 14 evening Mass at Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, Father Joseph W. McQuaide IV, rector, delivered a homily that was taped and viewed by about 1,000 people on cdow.org and thedialog.org.
In his remarks, Father McQuaide tied together the day’s readings and Gospel to the current crisis we’re all facing with the threat of coronavirus.
Below is the homily he delivered at Mass:
Our first reading from the book of Exodus recounts an experience of the Hebrew people about a month-and-a-half after their flight from Egypt and passing through the Red Sea. Now that they are in the desert, they begin to grumble and complain against the Lord. This leads them to ask the question is the Lord in our midst or not?
And this position can be, I think, compared in some ways to our own today with the coronavirus. Even if the early data prove to be overstating the risk, and even if transmission slows to a more manageable pace, we are still looking at widespread overcrowding of healthcare facilities, restriction of movement and shortages of goods. There will likely be more disruption to everyday life than almost anyone west of the Iron Curtain has experienced in their lifetime. The suffering that we may be about to endure will be, on a world-historical scale, relatively minor. For most it will involve adjustments to regular habits of daily life and of consumption. But, in an age of abundance and comfort, to many this will feel like the ground beneath our feet is, for the first time in our lives, unreliable. The Hebrews found themselves in a barren desert all alone. And now many of us find ourselves isolated from one another. We might be tempted to ask—as they did—is the Lord in our midst or not.
In the midst of this social distancing and isolation, the Church in our gospel reading this week gives us the figure of the Samaritan woman who herself is isolated and cut off from her society too, though for different reasons then we are today. According to some Biblical scholars, the fact that she came to the well at noon, at the hottest time of the day—instead of the earlier and cooler hours of the day as others did—indicates that she wanted to avoid contact with those others who might have looked down on her because of her sinful lifestyle. She was excluded by the other women because she had already had five husbands and the man with whom she was living now was not even her husband.
And yet, in her isolation, Christ comes to her. Our Lord speaks and reaches out to her. But this gesture of our Lord is bigger than just that. She was excluded from her town and community, yes, but the Lord crossed another barrier that was meant to separate them. She was a Samaritan and our Lord was Jewish. These two peoples did not look on another favorably. The Samaritans were the descendants of the 10 northern tribes who had been left behind in the Assyrian exile and intermarried with their captors. In the eyes of the Jews, these Samaritans had abandoned the Lord. They even built a new temple not in Jerusalem but on Mount Gerizim.
In her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman asks him on which Mountain, Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion, should people be worshipping? Jesus responds not by answering her question directly but leading her to a deeper reality. He said, “the hour is coming and is now here when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
Now, a modern mind might be tempted to think that Jesus is contrasting external worship, like the Mass for example, with worship from the heart. This was the critique of certain Protestant reformers, in the Wesleyan and Calvinist schools. But, this is not what Jesus meant. This false interpretation only showed up in the 17th-century. From Christ’s first disciples and down through the history of the Church, followers of Christ have understood that Jesus was saying Christian worship is not tied to a particular place. Saint Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century explained that “Jesus in effect says that people will no longer seek after a particular place where God properly dwells. And so, they shall worship the Lord everyone from his place, as the prophet Zephaniah said.” Jesus implies that by his coming into the world, he has changed the past and opened up for us the possibility to worship God wherever we are.
This teaching can give comfort to those of us who because of the new coronavirus and its spread throughout the world and our country find ourselves unable to go to our parish churches for Mass today. I’m grateful that you were able to tune in and unite yourself to the celebration of the Mass in our diocese. Though separated by distance and not physically present with us, know that you are with us in our prayers and know that the Lord hears your prayers as you worship him in spirit and in truth from your homes.
Though you may not physically be able to present at Mass today or in the days to come, the Lord can still come to you through a spiritual communion. Saint Thomas Aquinas defined a spiritual communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most blessed sacrament in Communion at Mass and lovingly embracing him as if we had actually received him.” In this prayer we ask that the Lord would come to us and make his dwelling in our hearts as grace. Rest assured that he can and does respond to anyone who comes to him in love and humility. After all, didn’t he say in the Sermon on the Mount concerning the power of prayer, “Ask, and you will receive.”? If you were not able to attend Mass this day or in the future, make an act of spiritual communion and know that the Lord comes to be with you.
At this time when many of us may be afraid, isolated, or alone, our second reading reminds us to have hope—a hope that will not disappoint us because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts. We see this in the past, how Christ loved us while we were sinners, while we were cut off from him. At that time of spiritual separation, Christ bridged that distance, came to us, and loved us. He showed us the extent of his love by his sacrifice of the cross. And so, now, we can have hope that just as Jesus acted in the past, he will act for us now today. Just as he came to the Samaritan woman at the well, there is the invitation for you and me to see Jesus come to us and stay with us.
In this time, we’re cautioned to go frequently to our sinks to wash our hands. Can I suggest we see in them a modern-day well? As often as we go to them and more often than that, know that Christ draws near to us and invites us to draw near to him, to worship him in spirit and in truth, to unite our hearts to his. After we wash our hands, the invitation remains for us to then fold them in prayer and meet the one who is truly the Savior of the world. In these days of uncertainty and fear, in this time of isolation, we know that we are not alone—that wherever we are, Christ comes to us to renew and deepen his relationship of love with us. In this we can be certain, in this we can have hope, and in him we shall not be disappointed.