The candles on the altar are lit, and I have taken my seat next to my wife as I wait for the service to start.
It might sound like any other Sunday morning, but I am not sitting in a pew: our family has gathered in the living room for our own liturgy. The makeshift altar is a table furnished with Andrei Rublev’s icon of the trinity and the San Damiano crucifix of the risen Christ.
With Masses suspended across Europe due to Covid-19 we are holding our church service at home. Our two eldest children Joseph, 10, and Martha, 7, lead the celebration. On a normal Sunday morning it’s a battle to get them out of the front door and to Mass on time. Like most other parents we have to chivvy the children along and encourage them to participate in the liturgy.
The novelty of having the liturgy in the living room is it spurs my children into action. Joseph and Martha argue over who is going to be the “high priest” and Joseph – on the grounds of being the eldest rather than theology – gets his way. But Martha processes in behind him as they enter the room singing “alleluia”.
Using the missal, we take turns to do the readings and read out the prayers. There’s a reflection from Benedict XVI which Joseph reads it out wearing his red slippers. It feels appropriate given the Pope Emeritus’ choice of footwear.
Our service is part-liturgy, part “playing Mass”, something which the children love.
Joseph and Martha have their seats by the altar, each taking it in turn to give a brief “homily”. Every so often our youngest, who is 6 weeks old, pipes up with his interventions.
We don’t let the crying put us off our stride. “When a child cries in church, it’s a beautiful homily,” says Pope Francis. The children insist on having communion and place bread and water on the makeshift altar.
After saying the prayers they distribute it to each other and to us: they play music and we have some moments of silence.
Amazingly, no one seems to be bored. Everyone gets something out of it spiritually. It reminds me of the house Masses I’ve experienced over the years, although I’ve noticed how these increasingly rare.
Perhaps when the Covid-19 nightmare is over, the tradition of a priest coming to say Mass in people’s family homes – the place of the “domestic Church” – might be revived? Gathering at home on a Sunday morning to pray is also practice dating back to early Christianity, when the first followers of Jesus were a network of house churches and small communities. Thinking of this gave our family service added poignancy.
Yes, the Coronavirus crisis has brought about fear, deaths and the suspension of public worship. The long term impact on the church and society will be profound. But it is leading people to ask life’s big questions, and for believers to take more responsibility for their faith.
Some families are logging on for live-streamed Masses on Sundays, others are getting the spiritual direction from Facebook lives. This wilderness period of isolation might yield unexpected results. After the crisis subsides, and the churches do eventually start holding Masses again, there could be a renewed appreciation of the Eucharist and active participation in the liturgy.