The incipient Coronavirus crisis has posed an unprecedented challenge to the global Church. In a time of necessary quarantining and social distancing, worship communities have had to find ways to pray together despite circumstances that keep them physically apart. Happily, our current milieu is blessed by the existence of video conferencing services like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype. Christians around the world (and indeed, members of worship communities from myriad faith traditions) have employed such digital resources during these challenging months, to the effect of maintaining community fellowship, facilitating liturgical prayer, and continuing spiritual formation—all from a safe distance.
Despite the strides we have made in sustaining the integrity and vitality of our faith communities in the midst of this pandemic, those of us with sacramental pieties are still faced with a formidable question: how can sacramental communities find a way to maintain engagement with their sacramental rites, even when the landscapes of worship and of pastoral care are so deeply altered?
As a member of the Episcopal Church, one such sacramental community within the Jesus Movement, I find myself wrestling with the above question. How I answer it, and how my Church answers it, will inform how we define and sustain our ecclesial identity in this time of trial.
The Episcopal catechism affirms seven Sacramental Rites for use in the life of our Church: the Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation of a Penitent, and Unction. Each one of these rites will present unique logistical and theological problems as we seek to continue sacramental engagement in the coming weeks and months. I cannot hope to address all seven Sacraments in this short essay. I merely intend to address the first: Holy Eucharist.
My reflection on the Sacrament will be grounded in my own Episcopal tradition, and the argument I offer below assumes standard Anglican theological, liturgical, and sacramental commitments. I understand that these commitments are not shared by our Ichthus readership as a whole. But any robust sacramental theology must be grounded in a particular tradition and expression, lest it become diluted, vague or overly abstract, and therefore unhelpful. Yet, even if I am so grounded in a particular tradition, it is my hope that the theology I offer here will be of some use to all Christians who are seeking to maintain sacramental practice during this challenging time. Perhaps my distinctly Episcopal rumination can and will have more expansive implications for the Church, if only my brothers and sisters from other sacramental denominations enter into the conversation and offer their own perspectives.
The Holy Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion, or The Lord’s Supper, or simply as the Mass) is one of two Sacramental rites ordained by Christ himself in the pages of Holy Scripture. The Eucharist also has the unique position of being one of the most present rituals in quotidian Episcopal life. Most ecclesiastically engaged Episcopalians receive the Body and Blood of Christ on a weekly basis—it characterizes our commemoration of The Lord’s Day and is at the zenith of our week. In addition, many of us have made daily Eucharistic reception a mainstay of our spiritual lives.
The Eucharist, then, is a crowning culmination of both personal and corporate spiritual life in our Church. And this is no wonder, of course, when we remember what the Eucharist is all about; and what it brings about within us and for us.
When we pray through the Eucharistic prayer together, we recapitulate the story of Christ’s loving sacrifice and welcome God’s Presence among us, even in and through such humble elements as bread and wine. When consecrated, these elements become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, and when we consume them—receiving Christ into our hearts and into our bodies—we receive spiritual nourishment which is a foretaste of the heavenly feast. As we take Christ’s Self into our self, we receive grace upon grace, and experience forgiveness for our sins.
But, even more importantly than all this, when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, we are united to Christ and to one another. In our consumption of the Eucharist, we are made participants in Christ’s mystical body, in whom all things hold together. Like many of the mundane meals we share, this—the very holiest of meals—is fundamentally connective. The Eucharist gathers us together around the altar (God’s table). And then, having been knit to each other in love and in fellowship, we are gathered into God’s own Self, through the simple but beautiful acts of eating and drinking.
Indeed, it is no wonder that this restorative, reconciling, uniting, and community-building Sacrament is at the heart of the life of the Episcopal Church. For, as the catechism affirms, our Church’s very mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Eucharist, then, is the lifeblood of Episcopal existence. It is the essence of our ecclesial vocation, distilled and embodied in our regular worship practice.
In this light, it is surely a frightening thought that, unless we find a way to innovate Eucharistic practice in order to make it enduringly and expansively accessible, most Episcopalians will not have access to the Eucharist in the coming weeks, and perhaps months. Church buildings around the country and the world are closed indefinitely, and priests—the sacramental ministers charged with celebrating and sharing the Eucharist—are currently cut off physically from most laypeople. Even if priests do continue to celebrate the Eucharist, they will not easily be able to share it.
This is a tragic situation. The Eucharist is not only for priests, after all—the Eucharist is for everyone! And as I have already demonstrated, its own deepest meaning is realized when it extends to as many people as possible, uniting all manner of human beings in the Mystical Body of Christ.
The Eucharist is not meant to be a meal taken in solitude. But does that mean, then, that we dispense with Eucharistic practice indefinitely, since many of us are in physical solitude while this pandemic runs its course? I do not believe this is the case. If the Eucharist is truly what we proclaim it to be, it would be no small sacrifice to forgo it while we weather the prevailing storm. To indefinitely forgo the Eucharist would be a travesty that cut to the heart of our identity as sacramental Christians.
Happily, I think we can actually avoid such a travesty and find ways to “gather” sacramentally in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper, even at a time like this. And I think we can use resources I have already mentioned to do this: video conferencing services such as Zoom. What follows is my proposed Eucharistic practice for use during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic. This particular articulation of such a practice springs from my own community—the Harvard Episcopal Chaplaincy—but I do not doubt that many other Episcopalians have had the same idea as we have. I do not claim that my proposal is wholly original. I only hope that my articulating it here will be of theological use to the Church during this challenging time.
I propose a Eucharist via Zoom. Here is how my community would like to implement it: first, we will “gather” for worship via a meeting on the Zoom platform. Each congregant—wherever she may be—will be invited to make ready some bread and wine in her own location. Our chaplain will serve as the celebrant, as usual, and her Eucharistic consecration will extend not only to the elements in her proximity, but to the bread and wine of all those who have gathered digitally to participate in the Eucharistic liturgy. To further align ourselves in prayer and in worship across space, I also propose that we orient our computers/phones/tablets so that we can all face the East (a traditional Eucharistic orientation), reverencing together the Rising Son, the Lamb who was slain. Our chaplain will celebrate a standard Eucharist, the only difference being its physical context. We will eat and drink Christ as we would on a regular Sunday morning. We will be present to one another and to God, even though physically we will be apart.
So far as I can tell, such an “innovation” in Eucharistic practice is both theologically innocuous and contextually appropriate. However, there is some hesitation among Church leadership at present about authorizing a Eucharistic consecration which happens remotely. I want to respect this reservation. I will gladly affirm that to enact Eucharistic worship via video conference is to cast anchor in unfamiliar and perhaps even frightening waters. Such a Eucharist would not be, after all, that to which we are accustomed!
But ultimately, just because something seems novel does not mean that it is wrong. I believe that if we consider deeply what is at the heart of any valid Eucharist, we will see that we have no reason to prohibit the novel Eucharistic practice I have described. Furthermore, if we remember, as I have outlined above, what makes the Eucharist meaningful and important, we will in fact see that we have every reason to try what I have proposed.
So, what might make the Eucharist-via-Zoom a practice which is theologically suspect?
Perhaps the problem would stem from the distance involved in such a ritual: distance both between priest and congregant and between priest and consecrated elements. Yet if the distance implied by a Zoom conference would be a problem, that would beg the question: what, then, is the maximum possible distance for a valid Eucharist? Shall I delineate the geographic limits of God’s sacramental activity and presence? Surely, such delineation would be hopelessly arbitrary, and therefore an act of myopic human folly.
A fair point, one might respond. But perhaps distance is not the core issue. Perhaps any distance is appropriate so long as the celebrating priest is capable of interacting with the consecrated elements by touch. This stipulation would render the Zoom platform an insufficient Eucharistic context. But then, often in larger parishes, the presiding priest does not always touch all of the elements blessed in a Eucharistic consecration. So, it is clear that the priest’s faculty of touch is not utterly essential to a valid Eucharist.
Perhaps, then, any distance is appropriate so long as there is no significant technology serving as an intermediary between celebrant and congregation. This stipulation would also render the Zoom platform an insufficient Eucharistic context. But then, what would we make of larger church spaces that necessitate the use of microphones and screen monitors for the sake of accessibility? Does that technology hamper the efficacy of the Eucharist to those congregants who must utilize technology to participate? Surely not!
Perhaps then, it is not so much an issue of distance, touch, or technology as it is an issue of presence: perhaps a Eucharist is valid so long as those who partake in the Lord’s Supper are able to be present to God and to one another. We are certainly able to be present, say, in a physical church or around a dinner table. These places are common contexts for the Eucharist. But perhaps we would not be sufficiently present over Zoom. But why would this be the case? Surely spiritual presence is not primarily concerned with proximity, but rather is grounded in an orientation of the heart and soul.
I may be standing next to you in a pew, but that does not mean that I am present to you; or that my heart is open to you, ready to practice compassion, welcome, and mercy; or that my ears are open to you, prepared to receive that which you might want to share with me. On the other hand, you and I could be engaged in a conversation over Zoom or FaceTime, and I could be deeply present to you and to God, even in that context. We could share in fellowship, thanks to our digital tools, even if circumstances kept us physically apart.
I do not dispute that distinctly physical presence may be more ideal or enjoyable. Who could deny that our eye contact is more rewarding when screens do not mediate it? What pair of friends would choose to greet one another with words, through the internet, when it would be perfectly feasible to stand together in one place, wrapped in each other’s embrace? And indeed, scripture affirms that there is a special, Christological quality when we are physically together. As Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Such faithful gathering is a wonderful thing to behold, and an even more wonderful thing in which to participate. I do not deny its place as the most evocative context for a Holy Eucharist.
But that which is ideal is not necessarily that which is currently possible. Our current circumstances mean that, for now, we actually will have to settle for that paltry eye-contact which happens over video conference. They mean that, for now, those loving friends I mentioned will indeed have to forgo physical embrace. But these (rightly) limited physical circumstances should not defeat our capacity to be present to one another, in whatever ways we can. And these circumstances certainly do not defeat God’s capacity to be present to us. God is there when we gather together physically in order to pray and to worship. But even when our acts of prayer and worship are forced into secluded places or crammed behind closed gates, God is no less present to us. For when we go into our rooms, and shut our doors, and pray to our Creator, our Creator sees us in secret, and will reward us (see Matthew 6:6). And Christ is present to us not only when we gather, but always—even to the ending of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Where can I go then from your Spirit? cries the psalmist, where can I flee from your presence? / If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. / If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, / even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me fast (Psalm 139:6-9).
We cannot run away from God. And we can neither exhaust nor confound the indefatigable and infinite Divine Presence which is always available to us; always seeking to guide us; always reaching out in love to transform us and to set us free.
In the end, it is this Presence which matters most, and it is this Presence upon which we call when we partake in the Holy Eucharist. The very heart of the Eucharist is none other than the Gift of this Presence. The ceremony is simply about our capacity to welcome it, to receive it into ourselves, in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. The Eucharist offers the “inward and spiritual” grace which is the “Body and Blood of Christ given to Christ’s people, and [this is crucial] received by faith.” 1
In this light, the Eucharist is not primarily about physical circumstances. This is why there is, in fact, a robust tradition of spiritual communion in the Church, a tradition which holds that the full benefits and reception of the Eucharistic Sacrament are available to all those who lovingly desire them from God, even if physical circumstances prevent the Sacrament’s customary delivery. We have a beautiful articulation of spiritual communion theology in the Episcopal prayer book, in a section on Ministration to the Sick: there, the rubrics remind us that “if a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reasons of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.”2 This demonstrates that it is the holy desire of the worshiper, and not any particular physical context or stipulation, which sits at the core of valid Eucharistic experience. It is ultimately a question not of perfectly performing any particular, exterior act, but rather a question of saying “yes” inwardly to God’s eternal and sacrificial Self-Offering to us.
The fundament of Holy Communion, then, is nothing more and nothing less than the intertwining wills of two hearts: one the one hand, the hungry, desirous heart of the human; and on the other, the Sacred Heart of Christ, always reaching out to us, and always longing to be received. When we truly accept this, we will realize that the reality of the Eucharist is far more expansively available than we first thought. God simply cannot be stopped from being present to us, no matter our circumstances. We need only consent to that Indefatigable Presence which is already available to us wherever we are—whether we are kneeling in a church sanctuary or sitting at a desk, staring at a Zoom call on a laptop. In any case, we need only open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to God’s loving gift. Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread!3
What, then, shall stop us from gathering digitally and being present to one another, in order to share in Holy Communion, even at a distance? Surely, we are not limited by some arbitrary physical constraint. Surely, we need not doubt our capacity to open our hearts to one another and to God, even if the current manner of our interaction is limited to the digital realm. And surely, we need not fear some lack in God’s plenteous, redeeming Presence.
We need only fear whatever hesitation keeps us from the Lord’s Table. Let us hesitate no more. Let us gather, in whatever way we can, to celebrate together the Supper of the Lamb. Let us be present to God and to one another, in whatever way we can, to share in the Feast of Christ’s Victory. Let us eat. Let us drink. Let us consume so as to be consumed. Let us receive so as to be received. And if we do these things, though we shall seem to be apart, we will be together: incorporated into that Holy Body which is the Cosmic Christ, in whom all things hold together and in whom all things are reconciled to God.4
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a junior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||See the Episcopal Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, 859.|
|2.||↑||Book of Common Prayer, 457.|
|3.||↑||(This phrase is a common prayer in Anglican Eucharistic devotion, inspired by the story of the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24, in which two disciples recognize the Risen Christ when Christ eats with them).|
|4.||↑||See Colossians 1:15-20.|