What are we missing?

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.

Eucharist and Justice

If you are surprised by the combination of these two words above, stop and think for just a moment. Your surprise reveals the massive amnesia among most western Christians about the fact that celebrating the Lord’s Supper ought to have huge consequences for how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It is urgent that we reconnect these two principles in order not just to recover faithfulness to Christ, and to ensure that our Eucharist is “valid” (1 Cor. 11:29) but to save the very planet we inhabit, our common home.

When writing the latest essay for one of my M.Div. courses on the above subject, I unearthed some poignant words which are crying out to be reclaimed, from the Gospel itself to the early Church Fathers to today. I am sharing them here with the hope of awakening all of us from our consumer slumber. For if we truly are what we eat, and if we partake in Holy Communion over and over for years, then just about every cell in our body has been nourished with the sacred meal. Christ’s Body and Blood – that’s who we are. From that reality it ought to flow without question that we in turn are then called to bring Jesus’ body and blood out into the world, to lay down our lives for the sake of our sisters and brothers in need.  May it be so.

On the night before he gave up his life for us, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body which is given for you.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, said the blessing, gave it to his friends, and said, “Drink this, all of you: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which is shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” ~ Eucharistic Prayer 5, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada.

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ~ Matthew 25:35—40

Although world leaders have increasingly talked about the need to tackle inequality, and in September agreed a global goal to reduce it, the gap between the richest and the rest has widened dramatically in the past 12 months. Oxfam’s prediction, made ahead of last year’s Davos, that the 1% would soon own more than the rest of us, actually came true in 2015 – a year earlier than expected.  ~ Oxfam Report, Jan. 18, 2016

When we seek liturgy which fosters social justice, we are confronted with an immense challenge – celebrating liturgy which changes not only the hearts of worshipers but, through them, the way the world – and the church – are organized and function. ~ The Liturgy that Does Justice, James L. Empereur, SJ, and Christopher Kiesling, OP. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1990

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream. ~ Amos 5:21-24

The 28 richest countries have resettled only 1.39 per cent of the 4.6 million Syrian refugees – a total of 129,966 refugees – a fraction of the 10 per cent of people who need to be urgently offered a safe haven. Only 67,000 have actually made it to their final destination. ~ Oxfam Report, March 29, 2016

Our habits and our predetermined ways and the structures of our society have fastened such blinders on our harnesses that, as a whole, Christians and Christian churches in our society have only the haziest notion of any moral imperative flowing from the Sunday meeting in which we celebrate God’s word of human liberation and solidarity and then act it out in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. As obvious as those ethical demands are, they simply do not impinge; they do not get through to us. We are too well protected by the world we live in. ~ Robert Hovda in Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008)

Those who hold strange doctrine … have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed … because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour. ~ St. Ignatius of Antioch, 100 AD

I recall you in the last place to the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament. … I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. ~ Our Present Duty, Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’  ~ St. John Chrysostom, 349 – 407 AD.

Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today—and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land? ~ Sri Lankan Bishop, in Gabe Huck’s Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008

As each Sister is to do the work of a priest — go where he cannot go and do what he cannot do, she must imbibe the Spirit of Holy Mass, which is one of total surrender and offering. For this reason, Holy Mass must become the daily meeting place, where God and his creature offer each other for each other and the world. ~ Blessed Mother Teresa, Rule Book, Sisters of Charity, p. 31; R. 33.

The Eucharist, whether seen as Holy Communion or as the Mass, can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. It’s supposed to have a trans-forming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote. ~ Gabe Huck,  Let’s put the Eucharist to Work, in US Catholic, June 12, 2008

In the third century, the North African bishop, Cyprian, wrote once to reprimand a wealthy woman in his church who made no offering of her resources for the care of the poor but who presumed nevertheless to show up at the communion table. From Cyprian’s perspective, the poor and rich alike must spend themselves for others. This is the concrete self-gift of the church, the gift celebrated in the Eucharist. The wealthy woman who refused her gift was denying – even mocking – the thrust and imperative of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is, above all else, a sacrifice: yours–joined to Christ’s. ~ An Easter Sourcebook, Gabe Huck, Gail Ramshaw & Gordon Lathrop, LTP, 1990

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and – if you cannot do more – have heartfelt sympathy. ~ Martin Luther in “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519, published in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

If a poor man or a poor woman comes, whether they are from your own parish or from another, above all if they are advanced in years, and if there is no room for them, make a place for them, O bishop, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make any distinction between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing before God. ~ Didascalia of the Apostles, 230 AD

Anyone who celebrates the Lord’s supper in a world of hunger and oppression does so in complete solidarity with the hopes and suffering of all men, because he believes that the Messiah invites all  . . . to this table and because he hopes they will all sit at the table with him. In the mysteries, the feast separates the initiated from the rest of the world. But Christ’s messianic feast makes its participants one with the physically and spiritually hungry all over the world. ~ Jurgen Moltmann, in Liturgy, Justice and the Reign of God, Frank Henderson, Stephen Larson, Kathleen Quinn, 1999

The Eucharistic celebration. . . is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life . . . . All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ. … Reconciled in the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection. As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the Eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the Eucharist. .. Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry, par. 20 & 24, World Council of Churches, 1982

In the fullness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He healed the sick and ate and drank with outcasts and sinners; he opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and to those in need. In all things he fulfilled your gracious will. ~ Eucharistic Prayer 1, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada

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