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Nicolais: Returning to church service in person brought me an unexpected surprise

After almost two years watching video feeds of services from home, last Sunday seemed to have a special reminder for me

Last Sunday I woke early, had coffee and decided to attend church in person for the first time in a year and half. As has happened often during my faith journey experience, it again proved to be a moment of grace.

I had not planned to attend in person. It was not something that I thought about for weeks or months. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I have been comfortably attending Mass via videoconference. That routine had become quite comfortable: wake up and have a cup of coffee, watch Meet the Press, boot up my computer and tune into Father Allan Cole webcasting his sermon.

No shower or change of clothes necessary. And if I missed the live session for one reason or another, I could always pop over to YouTube for a replay at my leisure.

Mario Nicolais

This Sunday seemed different. I awoke and felt drawn to Mass. I felt pulled to church in person. I felt called to worship in the house of God.

So, I went.

Walking through the parking lot and into the front doors filled me simultaneously with excitement and anxiety. I could feel the involuntary, sharp intake of breath through my N-95 mask as I passed into the entryway.

It passed moments later as I entered the nave. The breath I had drawn in escaped in an audible exhale.

Walking down the aisles of pews and toward the altar sent a wave of nostalgia and remembrance through me. It seemed like coming home.

Thankfully my parish are both conscientious and kind. Though the church doors did not have a mask mandate posted, every congregant wore a face-coving. Our priest took his off only to preach. And social distancing at an 8 a.m. service is easy; I had an entire pew to myself.

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Sitting in such a familiar yet oddly foreign setting, I subsequently experienced a moment of sublime connection. Typically, I look for one or two lines during a Mass that speak to me directly. Something in a reading, something in the gospel, something in the sermon.

But every so often it all seems to come together. Not coincidentally, those instances seem to take place during times when I have felt distant or apart, from family, friends or my faith itself. Times like the pandemic have foisted upon each of us over the past 18 months.

Last Sunday started with a reading from the Son of Solomon 2:8-13, a lovely metaphorical passage based on the passing of winter and being called forward to join God as his beloved. Given that it was the first time I had stepped foot in the church in so long, it obviously pulled directly on my heart strings.

The Psalm, second reading, Gospel and sermon each had similar themes that build upon each other. But it was all just a setup for the finale. Last Sunday was also the first baptism hosted at this service in two years.

After our priest masked up and called her parents forward, a young girl in a beautiful white dress became the center of our collective attention. As pure and innocent as only very young children can be, she reached down and played with the baptismal waters as we prayed over her.

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For that instant, she was the light that shone through all darkness.

As our congregation repeated our baptismal covenant to help her as a community, the smiles she elicited from the crowd were evident, rising from mask-clad mouths into the eyes of those gathered around her. I even witnessed a few joyful tears slide down cheeks, every bit as holy as the water sprinkled over her head. I would not have seen any of this, none would have touched my heart so dearly, if I had not been there in person.

We are not done with the pandemic and likely have darker days to come this winter. But last Sunday I was called to a gentle reminder that light and beauty and innocence remain regardless, a beacon waiting for all of us if we just look for it.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq



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