Book excerpt: What to do when you aren’t allowed to attend Mass

If you do not attend a religious service weekly, this article likely does not appeal to you. However, if you sorely miss Mass, read on!

Our benevolent overlord in Sacramento has decreed that indoor Church services are not allowed, not even chopped down to ten congregants and a sole priest.

What can you do when you aren’t allowed to attend Mass? (This question, slightly modified, can be applied to Christian denominations other than Roman Catholics, as well as other faith communities. However, the book excerpt is directed at Catholics.)

Although Bishop Kevin Vann has dispensed members of the Diocese of Orange from the Sunday Mass obligation during the current pandemic, most will still feel at loose ends. What can we do to keep faith alive?

In addition to family tradition and ritual, we can read and ponder. Reading and ponderings led me to this discussion of the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament:

Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving in Tobit

One of the most important contributions of the book of Tobit is its description of the lifestyle of those who worship the God of Israel.

In Tobit, we see developing the traditional categories of what would later be known as the “corporal works of mercy”.

Tobit places prominent emphasis on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burying the dead.

Traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving also appear as a triad for the first time in Scripture (Tob 12:8+).

These charitable acts, especially almsgiving, are an “offering” to the Lord (Tob 4:11) — in other words, they compensate for the inability to offer liturgical sacrifice — and they “store up treasure” in heaven; that is, they accumulate merit with God.

They are also said to “deliver from death” and “purge sin”, additional effects once attributed to the offering of sacrifice.

This liturgical view of what modern scholars would describe as ethical actions represents a remarkable development in biblical teaching on the moral life.

Indeed, insofar as Tobit is addressed primarily to those who find themslves physically unable to participate in the liturgy, it recommends the corporal works of mercy and the traditional practices of piety as ways of sharing in the ordinary effects of the cult in the absence of external worship.

From A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre.

Note: “cult” in this context most emphatically does not mean some crazy splinter group brainwashing its members to commit mayhem. Instead, it means “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” The Roman Catholic cult includes but is not limited to attendance at weekly Mass.

To provide a bit of context: in the Catholic ordering of the books of the Old Testament, the Book of Tobit follows the Books of Kings and Chronicles, which provide the history of the Kingdom of Israel from Saul to Zechariah. It describes the life of Tobit, an Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali, during the Assyrian exile that took place before the Babylonian exile. The tribe of Naphtali was part of the Northern Kingdom, conquered and dispersed by the Assyrians. Tobit and his family are living among Gentiles trying to keep things together while cut off from the Temple in Jerusalem.

So what can you do if you can’t go to Temple (or Church)?

  • Feed the hungry — contribute to a food drive or directly to a food bank like Grateful Hearts.
  • Fast — instead of bingeing on a quart of ice cream, set aside one day a week to intentionally eat less.
  • Almsgiving — donate monetary support to a worthy organization, such as Precious Life Shelter or Casa Youth Shelter.
  • Clothe the naked — donate clothes to Working Wardrobes or Salvation Army.
  • Bury the dead — ask your parish (or congregation) if a fund is kept to pay for burying those without adequate funds to pay for a burial plot or casket.

If you are religious, regard yourself as an exile and work at keeping your faith alive.

If you are not religious, get out of yourself and help others because it is also healthy for you and those around you.

(Tobit is also notable for the debut on the world stage of Raphael, one of the three named archangels. The others are Michael and Gabriel.)

The question of the Constitutionality of the ban on indoor religious services remains open, but that’s a different discussion.