It’s been a strange season of self-discipline and renunciation. Many were and still are heart-broken and fearful: losing loved ones to Covid-19, medical and front-line workers risking transmission, loss of work—income—freedom, and surely, loss of Sunday worship (as we used to know it) and loss of Holy Communion. Already last spring, barely two months into our lockdown, the aching and the questions emerged: “I so miss Communion.” “Can we come by the church and get Communion?” “How about virtual Communion? Is that valid?”
The weeks without church services have extended into months. Even now, when churches are cautiously re-opening with strict Covid-protocols, a significant number of Christians continue to deeply miss the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass. But what do we really mean by this? What exactly were we missing? What does Holy Communion mean?
Seizing a teachable moment, a colleague and myself decided to host a series of Zoom-chats on exactly these questions. We collected a number of articles on the subject, all written on the Holy Eucharist during the pandemic, from Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic sources. Each week participants received two articles in their email with reflection questions. Then for five Thursday evenings we met on Zoom to talk about what we had read. Both informal and instructive, we gathered with an open heart and a curious mind, to learn and share and discuss, and to still our spiritual hunger.
The result surprised both my colleague and I. Each week participants from five different towns and cities met on Zoom. Moreover, each of the three Christian traditions mentioned above were represented in the group, some through the reality of inter-church marriages, others because they learnt through personal connections about this initiative and asked to participate.
The conversations were lively and engaging, with much learning and new understanding. When asked how they would explain to an outsider what Holy Communion is, articulating an answer was a collective endeavour: a holy meal given to us by Jesus which we share under the leadership of a priest chosen by God and ordained by the church. When we do this together, we are part of a sacred tradition that precedes us and will be there long after we are gone. It is our spiritual food, and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God invites us into.
It was remarkable that from the very first conversation, participants began tentatively, unsure of their words. But then slowly, they found themselves building on one another’s utterances, and together they created a coherent explanation that all could find themselves in. Even when slightly intimidated by the theological density of a given article, the exercise of “breaking open the text” together resulted in greater understanding and clarity.
While these regular churchgoers showed a very good intuition about the nature and meaning of the Holy Eucharist, very few had thought of the Lord’s Supper as a witness to the world about God’s love for all creation and God’s redeeming work in Christ Jesus for all people. One participant wrote this in her evaluation:
In our Zoom conversations and in reading and re-reading the articles, I have learned more about the Eucharist and realize that, in taking Holy Communion, it isn’t just about my personal fulfillment, but about those who commune around me and extend this to the greater world. Eucharist seems to be the bigger picture. It involves our becoming nourished for mission and in witness to the whole world.
What we witness to when we “make Eucharist,” is that Christ died and rose again for sake of the whole world, giving us all a share in His new life. In Eucharist, we are the sign—that Christ is offering Himself, His body and blood for everyone. That as we show Christ’s love to the world, we also bring our love for our neighbours to him in prayer.
The group remained diverse on the question of virtual communion with some in favour and others not. Here are some thoughts from another participant: The Lutheran perspective by Professor Dr. Dirk Lange was very meaningful. His comments regarding virtual and online communion made sense to me. He gives reasons why we need the complete liturgical celebrations of the Eucharist or Holy Communion: ‘The whole liturgical celebration culminates in this great thanksgiving in the Holy Spirit that evokes God’s radical, self-giving gift, God’s gift of God’s self, Jesus Christ, Divine Mercy in our midst.’ Again, there is an insistence on the fullness of the rite and on the people gathered doing something together. I myself would not find virtual online communion very meaningful or satisfying.
Here are some thoughts from an RC participant: During Covid as much as I appreciate the online and zoom services, I miss my community, the physical presence and most of all not being able to receive Communion together, the spiritual food which helps me stay spiritually healthy. (Online) I am able to pray and worship my heart out but the real presence is missing. Would I receive Communion at home consecrated over the TV? I am not ready for that yet. But in the future if that was all that was possible, I would pray for a change of heart and enlightenment. Although I truly believe that for the Eucharist, the Word and the people/community are necessary to make a Communion celebration complete.
Discussing such a central aspect of our faith with Lutherans, Anglicans and Roman Catholics was a delightful opportunity to grow with, and to learn from, each other. Several participants concluded that our differences seem to lie primarily in different emphases and different terms, but that in essence we share a common faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine blessed in the presence of the gathered community of faith. And so the question naturally arose: why are we still divided at the holy Table of our Lord? Why indeed?
Debates on the pastoral and ecclesial, liturgical and theological consequences of the current health crisis continue unabated. Is online communicating and praying less real than in-person? Is the church selling the Eucharist short, and/or making it a clerical spectacle, with its explosion of online Masses, even now with protocols that reduce the communal nature of the holy meal? Is virtual communion eroding the communal dimension of the Holy Eucharist, resembling more an eating alone at home rather than sharing a meal with family and friends? To what extent has our individualistic culture in the west already contributed to an erosion of people’s communal understanding of Holy Communion, and is now exacerbated by the imposed social isolation for health reasons?
Maybe Covid-19 is bringing us an urgent summons to unite in the Holy Eucharist, so that this hurting world, in the throes of the pandemic, may believe in, and cling to, God’s unwavering hope, love and mercy for all humanity in Christ Jesus. In other words, what consequences and challenges does the pandemic pose to the churches on the question of uniting around the Lord’s holy Table? God’s love makes no distinctions, no exceptions, just like the virus itself. So why are we clinging to distinctions and divisions of old? If a pandemic cannot throw open wide the holy Table of God’s mercy in Christ, what will?
Towards the end of our meetings this group had become a beautiful and meaningful virtual community, and this virtual nature was definitely real. Maybe every celebration of Holy Communion has a virtual dimension, because it transcends the natural world. Just as Christ Jesus is truly and wholly present in the bread and the wine, so we became truly present to one another, forming one Body of Christ in order be sent out again to be the Body of Christ in the world, even in the absence of Holy Communion.