It would be a cliché, albeit a young one, to say that these are extraordinary times we are living in. The COVID-19 crisis has upended communities and families and societies across the globe. As Lester Holt recently stated on NBC Nightly News, the touchstones of daily life have vanished.
This is true for us in the Church as well. Our gathering together for worship in this Holy season of Lent has ceased. Clergy scramble to offer alternative ways of being together: Facebook Live, ZOOM, Livestream, recorded videos, these have all become new tools in our ministry tool kit, even as we dust off old favorites like phone trees and email and the US Postal service.
Finding new ways to be pastor and priest and prophet to the people we serve has not come without cost. I have watched my colleagues faithfully agonize over whether or not their parishioners are being tended to well. Not to mention, well enough. I have watched as we have drawn hard lines in the sand and touted our own work in ways completely without humility (beats chest three times) and likely born out of insecurity over these unprecedented days. I have seen an invitation to worship include the question “Wanna Hear Me Preach?” We have filleted one another in private Facebook groups without stopping to wonder or ask how we are all managing. In many ways, in our zeal to serve well, we have lost our focus on who we serve. And we have stopped trusting our people’s capacity to trust our leadership and love of them.
As is often the case, in times of great anxiety, systems target one particular issue. The evidence on social media platforms suggests that many of my clergy colleagues are coalescing their concerns around Eucharistic practices. This act, that is so central to our gathering, is theologically and physically impossible when we do not physically gather.
Alternative ways of receiving this sacrament are floated like so many balloons: Can we do it online? Do those watching participate at home? Can we do drive thru communion (because the Body and Blood of Jesus are fast food?) What happens if the absence of this sacrament extends into Easter? Is there resurrection without the body and blood?
After yet another online gathering and discussion, it became important for me to state with clarity my sacramental theology in times when the sacrament of the table is absent. It became important for me (maybe for my own sake) to consider how that might live out in our lives.
Because we are getting close to being pastor and people for a dozen years together, I have heard little from my parishioners about the absence of the sacrament, although I am certain that, like me, they miss this gift of grace. But it is absent in the same way and for the same reasons we are absent to one another. And similarly, our love for one another is not dimmed by our inability to gather. I am confident that this lack of communication around this on their part reflects my lack of communication around it. For me, it goes without saying that if we are not gathering as the physical Body of Christ we will not receive the Body of Christ. But that does not mean we are not the Body of Christ.
I wonder if this intense focus on this one matter masks something else? Does it mask our fears? Our fears that those we love and serve might die? That we might die? For we will all surely die, yet none of us imagined a pandemic with images of so much suffering.
Does this intense focus make an idol of the Sacrament? Are we putting the means of grace ahead of the One who bears it?
Does this intense focus keep us from encountering Jesus in other ways? In ways that might not seem as familiar as what we enact week in and week out. In prayer. In silence. In this forced solitude. In Scripture that is read, not for preparation to preach, but to immerse ourselves in the story in a new way.
Is this intense focus a sign of our frustration? We cannot offer to our people the one thing that we imagine might bring some balm? Or perhaps we are frustrated because there is no fix. No vaccine, no treatment, no readily available way to simply make this go away.
So, what can this wilderness wandering, this time away from God’s table teach us?
Is this a time of ultimate via negative? Is this a time when we understand and remember that God is greater than any of our thoughts/prayers/and even our sacramental rites and rituals?
Is this a time when we remember that the Eucharist is a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace. That grace is not gone. The sign of it is gone, for a time, but the grace of it remains.
Is this a time when we remember that we are not outside of the love of God, no matter what? Just as we know our beloveds love us even when we see no sign of it, how much more then does our Abba God love us?
Is this a time when the absence of the sacrament is a way of being in solidarity with the suffering in the world? If our grief at its absence is so great, might we join that grief with those who also grieve, who also suffer? Not equating our experience with theirs, but holding them in this space.
We do well to remember that the Eucharistic meal is a meal of death before it is a meal of resurrection. It is Christ’s body, broken for us and Christ’s blood poured out for us. A fast from the meal does negate the truth it holds: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Thanks be to God.