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Present from afar

  • 02 April 2020
One of the challenges posed by social distancing is how to reconcile personal presence with distance. Presence is tactile and up close. Measuring out the prescribed separation as people walk around the park in the early morning tends to turn familiars into strangers and greetings into distancings.

On the other hand, to overcome distance we happily draw on Zoom and other technology that allow us to be see one another’s faces. How to reconcile this interplay between distance and presence merits reflection.

My own reflection is coloured by my Catholic faith, and was prompted by the necessary closing of churches. In the Catholic tradition faith is tactile. At its heart is a God who in Jesus Christ joined our world, walked among us and had skin in our game. God is understood to be present in thingy, face to face ways — in gatherings of friends and strangers, rich and poor; in eating bread and drinking wine, teaching and listening, joking and being serious, in the pouring of water and anointing with oil, in shaking hands and hugs.

The central symbol and ritual of this understanding is the Sunday Eucharist where people gather to pray, eat and drink in the belief that Christ is really active in what they do and really present in what they eat and drink.

Seen from this perspective the closing of churches and consequent gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist is a serious business. The privileged ways in which God is present that cannot fully be replaced by other forms of presence. The expected outcome of closing churches might be the distancing of God from people’s lives.

Yet for many people this does not seem to happen. They find that the televising of Mass and other rituals and engagement with other electronic expression of faith overcomes the barriers of distance. To explore why this is so may illuminate larger questions about presence and distance in our lockdown society.


'We need to attend to the infinite complexity of the people to whom we are physically present, to the feeling of bare feet on carpet and brick, to the pockets of cool air under shaded trees on a hot day, to the quality of the red flowers and the green leaves of the geranium outside our window.'  

Questions about presence, distance, reality and appearance have been central to Christian reflection on the Eucharist for a millennium. It centred on the relationship between what Christ