I’ve been hearing from many of you about how we might experience Eucharist together in this difficult time. I understand and resonate with the questions – and the feelings of longing for the sacrament that those ideas express. If there was any doubt in the meaningful nature of our weekly table ritual, there is not any now. Especially in challenging times, the ability to gather, listen, sing, pray and share the bread and wine is a source of strength and unity that we desperately need.
So why not “consecrate” over the Internet? Why couldn’t a priest consecrate the bread and wine and consume it for the entire Body, in absentia? Why couldn’t we offer
drive-by Holy Communion?
This last question is, actually, the easiest to answer – reduced contact means reduced contact. There are really no exceptions to be made from a public health standpoint, as we strive to decrease the opportunities for the virus to be passed. By restricting ourselves, delaying our gratification, we express our love for each other and for our neighbors, especially those most vulnerable among us.
The other questions require a deeper conversation – and a walk through some rather heavy theological considerations; that is, what makes Eucharist, Eucharist.
A friend passed along a discussion from The Rev. Dr. James Farwell, who is currently at my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary, where he serves as the Professor for Theology and Liturgy. He wrote these words, part of a longer piece, while he was on an airplane returning from a trip in an effort to assist the faithful in the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition. I want to share with you some of his thoughts, which are offed in a surprisingly accessible way for a theologian!
He begins by reminding us that the Eucharist is both Word and Sacrament – Word and Sacrament! - and warns us not to make a fetish of the sacrament part of that combination. “Must we suddenly violate all principles of sacramental theology or canonical and rubrical order to make the Sacrament available to everyone in peculiar ways under quarantine?” he asks. “Are we wholly deprived because the Word alone is available to us for a time?” he continues. “I think you know the answer” he concludes. The answer is “not hardly.”
Professor Farwell goes on to say: “The sacrament is crucially a gathering of the social assembly, bodily, around material things. We priests do not consecrate the Eucharist alone. Nor is Eucharist consecrated or received virtually.” So the Eucharist is something that is experienced incarnationally – in the flesh, not through glass screens, darkly. There is something important about being present with each other in one place – gathered together, agreeing to sit together, to endure our mutual giftedness and our brokenness. There is something in this ritual that requires us to rub elbows (literally, these days) with people who are not the same as us, who may not like us or are difficult for us to like; who are irritating, opinionated, hard to understand, greedy, cruel, funny, beautiful, loving, generous; that is, all the things that make us human. There is something about being present in sharing what ultimately unites us – no matter what: God’s word and God’s body and blood.
Farwell goes on to quote the writings of Robert Taft, a Jesuit scholar: “The point of the Eucharist is not the changing of bread and wine but the changing of you and me. Is God unable to change us WITHOUT the bread and wine? Might God be able to work in us through a period of sacramental deprivation? Even through it?”
Farwell, and I, say, of course…God can work through it all.
The good teacher ends his missive with the following: “For years I have tried to teach students that you do not understand the sacraments if you cannot think BOTH/AND. The Eucharistic table is a table like no other table. AND the Eucharistic table is like every other table. The Eucharistic elements are special and singular in that there above all other places and times, we see what God is doing in ALL places and times. Here’s the question, then: do you think if we do not gather at the Eucharistic table…that God is no longer at present at all other tables, i.e., at all other places and times?” I hope I hear from you a resounding “no” – our God is the God who sits at all tables – and is the One that makes all tables holy, regardless of the limitations of the human condition.
Finally, the good professor leaves us with this last thought, which resonates with and I hope with you as well.
“Think on these things. May we gather again around the Holy Table very soon. In the meantime, look for the Tables around you and among you. God is still at the Table that is spread among us in our hearts, in our prayers, in our service. Welcome to the Feast that does not end, the love of God from which and from whom we are never separated, even without the Sacrament.”
This comes to you with love and prayers as we weather this storm together.
The Rev. Canon Patricia M. Grace