Theological Article of the Day: May 5, 2020

Communion with Christ and One Another in a Time of Pandemic

 April 9, 2020   Catholic Voices,  Features


By Julia Gatta

In 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

In the period between the death of Christ and the day of judgment, when Christians are allowed to live here in visible community with other Christians, we have merely a gracious anticipation of the end time. It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that the visible community is grace. . . .  The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (Life Together in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5, 28-29).

Bonhoeffer knew whereof he spoke. The previous year the Gestapo closed the underground seminary of which he was the director. Colleagues and former students were being held in detention. Bonhoeffer no doubt realized that his own freedom was precarious, as subsequent events proved to be the case. Today his words speak directly to our situation as we forego the “incomparable joy and strength” of  “the physical presence of other Christians.” To keep contagion at a minimum we are advised—and in some cases, ordered—to “shelter in place.” Our church buildings are closed, and they will probably remain closed until the danger has passed.

We are in new territory here as citizens of this country, as citizens of the world, and as citizens of the kingdom of God. We have perhaps learned to appreciate the “physical presence of other Christians” as never before. And we are grateful for the technology that allows us to see one another through various media and even engage in worship online. While none of this is the same as fully enfleshed engagement with one another, it nonetheless offers a more robust form of communication than previous ages had available when they faced comparable isolation.

How are we to respond to this situation of physical isolation combined with media connectivity? First of all, I think we should acknowledge the loss. Our loss may be relatively small, especially if we are not among those most vulnerable economically, or if we are not suffering the daily risk faced by healthcare providers or others engaged in essential services. But still our loss is real enough, and it may deepen as the crisis goes on. It is one thing to “fast” from Holy Communion during Lent, but it will seem strange indeed during the Easter season and beyond.

How, then, do we continue to worship during this time of pandemic? And where might we find wellsprings of grace to sustain us during this difficult time? We are, after all, a community of death and resurrection, having been made so by the gift of incorporation into Christ at baptism. We share in that paschal mystery every day and at every moment. God has not abandoned us, and divine grace awaits us at every turn. While this period of sacramental minimalism may awaken us to the joy and grace of the sacraments, it is well to remember that, as the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us” (BCP, 861). God continues to reach out to us, supplying the strength we need to weather our losses. Christ is our companion in joy and sorrow, life and death. Even in physical isolation, we are not alone: Christ is with us along with the whole communion of saints who belong to him.

It remains true, of course, that the Holy Eucharist is “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, 13). The link between Eucharistic worship and the Day of Resurrection—the “Lord’s Day”—seems pretty clear from the New Testament itself and characterized the worship of the Church from her earliest centuries. This is a feast that at once looks back to the Last Supper and anticipates the banquet of the age to come. It both “proclaims the Lord’s death” and participates in his resurrection. Hence, a candidate for Holy Baptism must promise fidelity to the Eucharistic community—to the “breaking of the bread”–in words describing the first generation of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42).

When, however, for reasons of public health we cannot gather as a community for the Eucharist, we have another liturgy still available to us: the Daily Office. The Book of Common Prayer describes the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, together with the Holy Eucharist, as the “regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP, 13). We can thank Thomas Cranmer, architect of the first Book of Common Prayer, for the inclusion of Morning and Evening Prayer in our prayer book. The origins of the Office go back to the round of Jewish piety that punctuated the day. These services evolved over the Christian centuries, first in the cathedral cities, until quite an elaborate seven-fold office was prayed, often with beautiful chant, in medieval monasteries. Cranmer culled material from these monastic offices, simplified them, and restored them to use by lay people and parishes. They were now in English rather than in Latin. Cranmer never intended the offices to replace the Eucharist on Sundays. Rather, they were to be prayed every day in the parish church: these are daily offices. On Sundays, the offices would be said and the Holy Communion celebrated.

The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are thus a treasured part of our Anglican heritage. But these treasures are to be used rather than placed on a shelf for admiration. They are the living prayer of the Church each day. Even if we say the office privately, we do not pray alone. We are praying with the Church, engaging in a common round of consecutive readings from Scripture, recitation of the psalms, canticles and prayers. The office supports our prayer when we feel uninspired; we just have to do it. It subtly but steadily deepens our connection to the particular mystery of Christ commemorated in any given liturgical season.

In this time of Eucharistic deprivation, a number of parishes are streaming the Daily Office on Sunday, often using the Eucharistic lectionary for the readings, since the Office is serving as the main—or only—service for the day. This is all to the good, and in this way some Episcopalians who are unfamiliar with the office may begin to take it up, as intended, for daily use. People who are not living in total isolation but in Christian households might well begin praying the office together not just on Sundays, but every day. The office is designed for daily use, and it is only over the long haul that one really experiences its benefits. The Scripture lessons, in particular, bear fruit not when dipped into occasionally, but when read consecutively, “in course.”

If, as is likely, the need for physical distancing stretches out for months rather than for weeks, the pain of separation from the Eucharistic celebration may become acute. Some parishes and cathedrals are already streaming the Eucharistic liturgy online, and more may do so over time. In what spirit might Christians watch these celebrations in which they cannot participate by receiving the consecrated Bread and Wine? In what spirit should priests and bishops preside at them?

This situation is not entirely novel to Christian experience. As Bonhoeffer observed, Christians are sometimes deprived of the physical presence of the faith community, and thus of the sacramental ministrations they would normally provide, over long stretches: Christians suffering under conditions of persecution or imprisonment, for instance, or those living among non-Christians where no Christian community is at hand. Wars and natural disasters—tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and catastrophic fires—all disrupt community on every level and thwart participation in the sacraments. In the rubrics for the Ministration to the Sick, the prayer book anticipates a circumstance in which someone might be physically unable to receive Holy Communion:

If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness of 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, 457)

This has come to be called “Communion by desire” or “spiritual Communion.” The assurance the celebrant is charged to offer those too infirm to receive the Sacrament is no empty gesture. It bespeaks a confidence in God’s love for us and in the capacity of divine grace to reach us no matter how constricting our circumstances. Hence, the longing for sacramental Communion, roused by our very deprivation of it, should not be repressed but rather channeled into the earnest seeking of spiritual communion with Jesus. Such a deepening of union with Christ is always available to us, but we lay hold of it intentionally through prayer. In one of his talks, Thomas Merton described the process this way:

In prayer we discover what we already have through the indwelling Spirit of God and our incorporation through baptism into Christ. You start where you are and deepen what you already have and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. All we need is to experience what we already possess (qtd. in Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, 45).

“What we already possess” is communion with Christ. It is variously described in the New Testament as “indwelling” or “abiding”: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). St. Paul declares that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). So communion with Christ is already ours, given through “our incorporation through baptism into Christ.” But it is one thing to know this, and another to experience it. This union can, as in any love relationship, be enhanced and deepened. Hence the practice of prayer, including spiritual Communion.

“The Mass on the World” by French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin witnesses to the depths to which spiritual Communion can plumb. He composed this prose-prayer on the steppes of Asia on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in 1923 when he found himself without the needed elements to celebrate Mass. He was instead moved to “make the whole earth my altar” at daybreak to offer God “all the sufferings and labours of the world.” As de Chardin moves from “The Offering” to “Communion” and “Prayer,” he lays bare his love for God, for suffering humanity, and for a creation shot through with the presence of Christ (Hymn of the Universe).

It may be that viewing an online celebration of the Holy Eucharist, especially one that is conducted in “real time,” can inspire a similar movement of the spirit: from hearing and interiorly responding to the Liturgy of the Word; through the “offering of our life and labors,” our joys and deprivations, our griefs and losses; to an experienced union with Christ as the Great Thanksgiving is prayed, and the Bread broken. What then? Are the “Gifts of God” still “for the People of God”? Yes, they are! In Anglican tradition, the Eucharist is never celebrated without a congregation, no matter how small; we have no “private Masses.” So any online celebration would have to include, besides the priest, at least a few people, spaced a safe physical distance from one another. Their reception of the Sacrament would be an occasion of grace not only for themselves, but also for all of us. Because we are all members of the one Body of Christ, when one member benefits from the manifold graces of Holy Communion, we all flourish.

There are some voices in the Church who have urged that when celebrating the Eucharist under these conditions, priests should refrain from receiving Holy Communion in sacrificial solidarity with the vast majority of the faithful who are deprived of that privilege. There is, however, another sacrificial reality at work in the Eucharist of greater significance. In his self-offering to the Father, Jesus also offers himself to us: “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. . . Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood” (BCP, 362-63). Would we refuse his invitation? Disobey his clear command? The bread and wine must be consumed: Communion is the climax of the Eucharist. And so the priest, together with whatever congregation is present, share in the sacramental gift of Christ on behalf of us all and for the life of the world. The Eucharist is always for the whole Church; indeed, it is always celebrated on behalf of the whole creation. Priests are not in control of this dynamic of grace. As the ecumenical Lima Document states:

It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. . .. In most churches, this presidency is signified by an ordained minister. The one who presides at the eucharistic celebration in the name of Christ makes clear that the rite is not the assemblies’ own creation or possession; the eucharist is received as a gift from Christ living in his Church. (“Eucharist” In Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, par. 29).

To preside at the Eucharist is, even under ordinary circumstances, a grace received with awed thanksgiving and piercing humility. Few priests are unaware of their personal unworthiness to “go up to the altar of God.” Yet this ministry is exercised confidently on behalf of the priestly people. In the same way, both priest and people receive the Sacrament trusting in the comprehensive mercy of God. Indeed, one of the benefits of receiving Holy Communion is the forgiveness of sins. But the sacraments are not just for the individual recipients of them, however great their personal value may be; they are for the whole world. As the Lima Document goes on to say: “The world, to which renewal is promised, is present in the whole eucharistic celebration” (par. 23).

It is always a privilege to receive Holy Communion. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, there are Christians–incalculable numbers of them, in fact–who cannot share in the communal and sacramental fullness we normally enjoy. Life in this world is riddled with inequities. But the economy of the kingdom of God is of a different order, and the Eucharist participates even now in that heavenly realm. If our situation allows us in the present constrained circumstances to receive the Sacrament, we should do so, more cognizant that ever of the extraordinary gift of Christ. When we are united to Christ in Holy Communion, we are united to one another in the whole communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology in the School of Theology, the University of the South, Sewanee. Her most recent book is Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality (Church Publishing, 2018).