–From Bill R.
I know I’m not the only one feeling the gaping Eucharist-shaped hole in our services.
Technology has made it so that we can do almost everything a church needs to do without endangering the most vulnerable in our community to Covid-19. Almost. But what an “almost.” We can “meet” to worship. We can read the Word, pray, sing, and encourage each other using cameras and screens. We can even tithe through PayPal. But we can’t celebrate the Eucharist.
This is what is on my mind and in my heart.
The Eucharist leaves such a massive hole in our services because it is the central rite of Christianity. It is handed down from that brief period between the Resurrection and the New Testament. It certainly predates the Gospels and appears to be a well-established rite when Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth, suggesting that it arose in the first two decades of the Church. Our services have two parts – the Synaxis or “Service of the Word” and the Eucharist – so half of our service is missing!
The Eucharist is impossible to celebrate remotely because it is so stubbornly physical – it is a rite of hospitality that requires that we have real bread and real wine – in the earliest days, the gifts brought by the congregation itself – to break, bless, and eat together. Hospitality requires physical presence. Host and guests make each other vulnerable to each other by trusting each other to be unguarded in a common space. The Eucharist calls us together in a house – the plan of churches still faintly echo the ancient Roman house – in profound trust. We are warned to resolve conflicts with other believers and it is no coincidence that we confess our sins before approaching the table. The hospitality of God is to be perfect.
The Eucharist is one of the places where Christianity’s Jewish heritage is most evident. Our Eucharist is a modified Passover meal, probably combined with elements of the weekly religious meal of Chaburah communities (groups of friends who observed religious meals on the evening before the Sabbath). In obedience to the Lord’s commandment, the earliest Christians remembered our own Exodus on Sundays, breaking bread and drinking wine together. The Passover was a family meal – eaten together to remember when the blood of a lamb preserved families from the last plague. We are a family eating the Passover together when we celebrate the Eucharist. We are a Chaburah community, drawn together around the Rabbi who presides over the meal. In the person of the priest, he breaks the bread, blesses it, and hands it to us – and likewise the cup.
The Eucharist is a poem in action. It is simultaneously an act of obedience, hospitality, a Passover, a remembrance of our own Exodus through the Passion, and a Sabbath meal. And this is all before we get to the more controversial mystical elements.
“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast.” In some sense, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. The Gospels clearly want us to understand Christ’s death on the cross as sacrificial, juxtaposed as it is with the Jewish Passover sacrifice of lambs. Our Book of Common Prayer carries forward the understanding of I Cor. 5.7 & 8 as applying to the Eucharist. In some important sense, the sacrifice of Christ is brought to the present when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
And there is something more. Christ is really present. It is this presence of Christ in the sacrifice that is so mysterious and contentious (among Protestants, at least). know that Anglicans differ on how we understand Christ’s presence. But we do know that as early as Ignatius of Antioch (writing somewhere around 115 AD), Christians understood Jesus to be really present in some important sense in the bread and wine. I believe we meet Christ in the Eucharist in a special way – a sacramental way – that we don’t get in any other context – but I don’t have a theory to explain it.
All of this adds up to an incredible loss. There’s no sugar-coating it. For all that technology can do to bring us together, it can’t substitute for a meal shared together, passed from the Priest, standing in the place of Christ, to us. We could do as our Catholic brothers and sisters do, and celebrate in the absence of the congregation. We could watch and pray. Whatever the benefits of doing so, it falls far short of the ideal. Our priests could celebrate the Eucharist and give us reserved sacrament to self-administer. Better, perhaps. But, again, how far short it falls of the great poetry of the meal shared together.
None of this is to disagree with our choice to socially distance at the cost of the Eucharist. Maybe the half-measures above would be better, but our Bishops have elected not to take them. We are making this sacrifice to save lives. Those are the stakes.
God has been gracious. Perhaps it is a reward for making the right decision. Perhaps it is just his overflowing generosity. There are three things I want to point out that I praise God for:
1. The ability to have church services. Even 10 years ago, we probably couldn’t have pulled off Church meetings over a service like Zoom. There is so much we can do. And we do worship together. What a privilege!
2. God has blessed our prayers. There is a part of the communion service that remains – the prayers. The prayers at St. John’s have been an outpouring of communal love and care for our community and the world. In our authentic and heart-felt prayers we regain something like the vulnerability and trust that we lose in physical presence. We are united in a way that we were not united when we had the Eucharist. Praise the Lord for this gift!
3. Our community has never been stronger. Every week at the communication committee meeting, I hear stories of how people have connected over Zoom during our coffee hour or in other ways, using technology. We are having long conversations with those outside our own little group of most familiar people. We are learning things about each other that we never knew. We are learning to prize each other – the church of God! – in new ways. Thanks be to God.
We don’t know what other gifts God might have in store for us. The loss is great. I don’t want to minimize that. It will not be ok until we are able to be under one roof again together. But God is good. He is taking care of us in the meantime.
Thank you, Bill, for your wonderful reflection. It is theologically, liturgically and pastorally on point. We are all living with and profound sense of loss, and I find the psalms of lament to be a great comfort.
Thank you, Bill, for this great piece. I also feel this great loss. Although I am a historian, I believe, like you, we must use history with caution. After all, which history should we use? At this time, I wish we would allow our theology to bend, like a reed under the effect of a terrible gale. Bend without breaking. Bend under these terrible circumstances and experience a piece of that hospitality that we have lost with the absence of physical presence, that breaking of bread *together*. In times of revival in the past, Christians have gone back to the simplicity of early church practices. Is this a time of revival for the church? (Wait and see.) In any case, is this not a time in which the church as we know it is being remade? One way I imagine the priesthood of all believers is that we all become holy clergy, even in our sacramental church (that I love), and bless the sacrament together in our homes. This is my plea from the heart for this painful time.