12 days. As of the day I am writing, that’s how many days since I last received the life-giving food of Christ’s body and blood. It’s been a decade since I’ve gone that long without receiving the Eucharist. I’ve seen and heard many people talk about how this is a time to realize what we have taken for granted in our lives. For me, the Eucharist is on the top of the list. I am sure I am not alone. The Eucharist has come up a lot, as I’ve spoken to people from our parish in the past two of weeks. More than one person has wondered if we could do a digital Eucharist, where each person gathers their own elements of bread and wine and I bless them remotely over the internet live-stream. I have been moved by these conversations and the desire to participate in the great Sacrament of the Church that they express. I love and admire you all for the strength of your faith and your hunger for the healing food of the Eucharist.
The thing about the Eucharist is that it is inescapably physical. The Eucharist embodies the incarnate, the en-fleshed, body of Jesus Christ. Jesus is made present in the elements of wine and bread for the physically gathered community of the body of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Church…otherwise known as you. This is a material, personal, face-to-face act of thanksgiving and sacrifice. While the internet can do many things for us, especially in this time of crisis, it cannot simulate the immediacy and intimacy of the Eucharist. The essential physical nature of the Eucharist is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer in the only instruction during the Eucharistic prayer for what the Celebrant (the priest) must do with their hands. When saying the Words of Institution–“This is my body…” and “This is the blood…” the priest must touch the bread and touch the chalice. It’s not that I have magic hands or that there’s anything special about me personally. It is that the priest (who is standing in for the bishop, actually) represents the entire gathered assembly, offering up everything we have as a sacrifice of praise to God and receiving everything back, blessed, broken open, and dripping with God’s grace. Good WiFi is no substitute for the real thing.
As a priest I could celebrate the Eucharist with only another member of my family present. But to do this for my consolation only, would be (to my conscience) a selfish act. The intention of the heart is key here. I do not question the motivation of priests who are celebrating the Eucharist in the absence of a congregation. I am personally grateful that many of my colleagues have continued to pray the best prayer of the Church (the Eucharist) and to offer up the body and blood of Christ for the healing of our lost and broken world. But for us, the vestry and I decided that we would livestream Morning Prayer instead of Eucharist as our main service for the time being.
So, we’re in a pickle. In direct consultation with the Commonwealth’s health department, the bishop has suspended in-person worship services through the first Sunday of May. I cannot even express how sad I am about the implications. We cannot gather in person for Palm Sunday, or any of the services of Holy Week, or on the most important and glorious and meaningful day of the entire year—Easter Day. Nevertheless, the bishop’s decision is the right one. We need to stay home to save lives and to reduce the pressure on our healthcare system. This is what loving our neighbor requires of us, and to violate that love—even for the sake of something so intrinsically good as gathering together to worship—is wrong.
As unprecedented as all this sounds, we are not alone in this. Our ancestors in faith dealt with similar and even more difficult circumstances. As the fly said when he fell into the preserves…I’ve been in much worse jams than this. The Church has lived and faithfully thrived through much worse jams than this. It is also helpful to remember that not too long ago the norm in the Episcopal church was Morning Prayer three Sundays a month and Eucharist one Sunday a month. In the Middle Ages, despite daily Eucharists celebrated in most churches, the average faithful Christian would only receive the Eucharist once or twice a year—perhaps only on Easter and Christmas.
The Book of Common Prayer also offers a way forward for us who so desperately want and need the Eucharist:
“If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason 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.”BCP, page 457
This concept is known as Spiritual Communion. Even though we cannot receive with our mouths, God’s grace is imparted and made present to us through the holy desire and intentions of our hearts. We are embodied people and Spiritual Communion is no permanent substitute for the material Eucharist, but in this time, it will carry us through. So going forward into Holy Week we will create opportunities to make Spiritual Communion and to sharpen the desires and intentions of our hearts toward union with God and each other. And when this thing is over, and we can gather again, we are going to have one heck of a party and one heavenly Eucharistic feast together.
Right now, do not doubt that God’s loving presence is everywhere. God is with you right now. God hears our cries and sees our desperate moments. Lord, hear our prayer and let our cry come to you. Lord make speed to save us. God make haste to help us. Amen.