Spiritual Starvation during Eucharistic Fast

It has been almost two months since I have presided at a Eucharist. In the Diocese of Milwaukee all public worship has been suspended and we are not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. While a similar ban is not in place in all Episcopal dioceses, for the most part there are no public Eucharists taking place throughout the church. In some places, priests are live-streaming Eucharists and no doubt some priests are also presiding at family Eucharists or in small groups. Most interestingly, the National Cathedral’s weekly livestream includes the Eucharist but the participants in the liturgy, even the presider, refrain from receiving the Sacrament. This situation has occasioned much theological debate and controversy. Rather than intervening directly in these debates, I would like to reflect on what this suspension of the Eucharist has affected my own spiritual life.

In fact, to use the word “spiritual” here seems rather odd. While the loss I am feeling in this season is connected with what we moderns and post-moderns call “spiritual,” the depth of the loss is experienced in my body. Christianity is an embodied faith. We believe in a God who became flesh and dwelt among us, a God in Christ who became human and died and on the third day was raised from the dead.

I have struggled over the last two months to connect my religious life, my religious experience, with the ongoing worship life of the Church. I found it especially difficult during Holy Week, a time when we enter into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. Our liturgies take us from the triumphal procession of Palm Sunday, through the Last Supper. We go with Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane. We watch as he is arrested and tried. We kneel at the foot of the cross as he dies and we remember his burial.

I felt like I was going through the motions this year, saying words that were completely separated from ritual actions, wafting in space disconnected from the bodies of worshippers. I could not imagine what a “virtual Great Vigil of Easter” might be and chose not to watch others performing it online. That sense of disembodiment has persisted, even deepened since Holy Week and Easter. Absent the Eucharist, absent the bodily gestures and the participation of the senses, my religious life has become one-dimensional, a mere imitation of the real thing.

A few days ago, I went to the church for the first time in a couple of weeks. We have hired a new staff member and I wanted to greet him on his first day in the office. In addition, there were a couple of other things I wanted to do—to pick up some materials I needed at home, to go through the mail and check my voicemail. I had a few other things on my agenda. I wanted to look at our spaces in the nave and chapel and think about what social distancing might look like there. And there were some uncompleted tasks that I needed to address.

When I entered my office, I saw one piece of unfinished business. The unused palms from Palm Sunday were still in a box on the floor. I moved them over to the spot where I usually leave them for the next year’s Shrove Tuesday burning. As I did, my heart grieved again for the lost Holy Week liturgies.

A few minutes later, I was down in the chapel, thinking about the need to remove chairs to ensure social distancing. I turned and saw the aumbry and faced another quandary I had been mulling for weeks. It’s our custom to consume all of the reserved Sacrament before Good Friday so that the church is emptied of Christ’s presence in commemoration of Christ’s death and burial. We hadn’t done it this year because the church was closed and we didn’t have public services. It seemed to me ironic and theologically troubling that we maintained the presence of the reserved Sacrament during a period when we aren’t celebrating the Eucharist and receiving Christ’s body and blood. I thought that removing the reserved Sacrament from the church would be fitting, given that the Body of Christ cannot gather in that space either. If the body was absent, so too should the Body (and Blood) of Christ be absent.

As I began consuming the consecrated hosts, I remembered that a host hadn’t passed my lips in over six weeks. Having missed the sacrament over that time, I assumed that I would feel something profound and meaningful as I ate. Instead I found myself tackling this task as I had in past years, as a necessary if sacred obligation. Typically, I am much more concerned with finishing the task than experiencing it spiritually. I do usually reflect on the fact that Good Friday is the one day that the Eucharist is not celebrated in the church. While we don’t follow the practice, in many churches there is communion from the reserved sacrament, the “Mass of the Pre-Sanctified.”

Instead of a single day without the Eucharist, it has been 54. In fact, as I consumed the hosts, I paid attention to their bland taste and how they felt on my lips, in my mouth, and as I swallowed them. They were precisely as I had remembered them, bearing almost no similarity to my wife’s home-made bread that I’ve been eating almost exclusively the last two months. Moreover, there seemed to be nothing “spiritual” about my eating them.

I could have left the reserved sacrament, I suppose. Left the body and blood to deal with another day. Left them in an empty, silent church; where dust was gathering and the smells that accompany old, unused spaces begin to accumulate. It seemed right, though, that if the body of Christ could no longer meet in the church that Christ’s body and blood should be absent as well, that the aumbry would stand empty with its door open as it is on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. An empty, essentially abandoned church is an unlikely place to experience the presence of Christ.

 

As I continued to ponder my response to this act, I realized that something else was happening. As important as the Eucharist is to me, as central to my spirituality and vocation as it is, the consumption of the elements is only part of a larger whole, that what I’ve been missing is not only Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine, but the whole experience of the Eucharist. What I miss most of all is the gathered body of Christ, worshiping together with our hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and voices. I miss the bodily gestures of procession, kneeling, standing, bowing. I miss hearing the organ, singing hymns, praying with the community for our concerns and the concerns of the world. The presence of Christ is not confined to the consecrated elements. We experience the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament, in the gathered Body of Christ. I’m beginning to think that we can only fully experience Christ’s presence when we gather physically.

There’s something profoundly unsettling and unsatisfying for me in live-streamed worship. Whether I am leading or participating virtually, it seems disembodied, one-dimensional. Even when it’s done well, it seems a pale imitation of “real” worship—a few singers spaced appropriately cannot create the same sort of experience as a full choir; the presence of a few clergy and readers seems to highlight the emptiness of the churches in which they are performing the rituals. I hunger and thirst for the gathered body of Christ worshipping together.

It’s likely that my hunger and thirst will continue for some time to come. States are reopening; conversations are beginning across the country in churches about what it will be like to return to public worship. It’s clear that whatever happens when we are able to gather again, our worship will look, feel, and sound very different than it did two months ago. We may continue for many months to have to adapt our worship to the reality of COVID-19.

With our traditional worship upended for such a long time, I think it is important that we consider the implications of our new worship practices and experiences on our theology of the body. While it’s easy to think of the zoom desktop as disembodied heads with virtual backgrounds, it’s also the case that real life often interjects itself into those zoom meetings or worship—in the form of noisy children or a cat walking on the keyboard, or for some of us the messiness of the room in which we are working. All of this points to the fact that reality intrudes into our virtual experiences in ways that it may not when we gather for worship on Sunday. Zoom may open us up and make us vulnerable to each other in ways that would make us uncomfortable in Sunday worship.

We are in the early stages of our experience of life with COVID-19. We don’t know how it will affect our communities and congregations, our worship, and even our theology. But we should be open to the opportunities it presents to us even as we lament what we have lost. I am curious to see what sort of embodied religious life will emerge in the coming months and years.

Resources for thinking about re-opening the church

Updated 12 May 2020

On May 13, I’m convening a conversation at Grace to begin thinking about worship, programming, fellowship, and other ministries when we are able to re-open the church. It’s likely that all aspects of our common life and ministry will be affected by COVID-19 for many months, requiring us to make significant changes. I think it’s important that we begin this conversation now because it will take some time for us to understand how radically our worship, fellowship, and programming will change for the foreseeable future.

We know that Governor Evers has extended the “Safer at Home” order until May 26. The state has also published a plan for staged re-opening called Badger Bounce Back: Badger_Bounceback_detailed. With the Governor’s order challenged by Republican legislators, it may be that the order will be deemed unconstitutional. We will need to plan for that as well. At the same time, our decisions will ultimately be guided by the instructions given us by Bishop Miller and the Diocese of Milwaukee.

Fortunately, there are already many resources available to help us have this conversation and to think about the implications for our buildings and programs. I’ve collected some of those here.

New as of May 12:

 

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has been widely shared: WCC Guide to Returning to Church – Ministry During COVID19

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has also prepared a document discussing music in particular: Returning to Church – Church Music final

One of the most useful pieces I’ve read is this: 24 Questions your church should answer before people return.

There’s a helpful article from the Episcopal News Service that surveys dioceses and parishes across the country:

 

Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

God’s love poured into our hearts: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2020

My beloved friends in Christ, I come before you in these strange circumstances, as we face danger like none we have ever known before, in the midst of overwhelming fear, anxiety, and growing isolation. Even as we struggle to make sense of all of this, struggle to figure out what to do, struggle to survive, we also see signs of God’s grace and mercy. I am so very grateful for your prayers for me, our staff and lay leadership as we work to respond to this situation. I am grateful for the volunteers who offered to help with the phone tree that was implemented yesterday, to provide us with yet another means of communication. I’m grateful for Vikki and the food pantry volunteers who continued that vital ministry in these difficult circumstances. I’m grateful for others who have reached out with words of encouragement and offers of help.

These are trying times, made especially so because our human instinct to come together, to gather in the face of crisis, is made impossible by the need for social distancing. The comfort and strength we gain by meeting together is lost to us. That is one reason I decided to offer online worship this morning; as a way to gather, if only via the internet, to hear familiar words and say familiar prayers, to gain strength and to receive grace from the Eucharist, even if we can experience it only visually and spiritually.

When we gather, our fellowship seems easily to nurture community. We greet each other, share polite conversation, shake hands while passing the peace, talk during coffee hour. But ours is primarily a Sunday congregation; most of us have other relationships with friends, family, and coworkers that sustain us and support us. We don’t often pay close attention, tend, or nurture any of those relationships. Proximity makes such relationships relatively easy to maintain. Now we are in a different situation. Our physical separation means that we must find new ways to build and nurture relationships. We must be more attentive, intentional. It is my hope that our experience in the coming days and weeks will create new and deeper connections that will continue when we are once again able to gather together physically.

I was moved by the power and relevance of Paul’s words in today’s reading from Romans: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” May we gain strength for the days to come from these words and may we all experience the hope that comes from the love that God pours into our hearts.”

 

Today’s gospel reading offers insight into our situation. The story of the Samaritan woman is a familiar and beloved story. It’s a story full of symbolism and like so many stories in John’s gospel, it gains deeper significance and meaning when we read it in light of the rest of the Gospel. So for example, we could contrast Nicodemus, last week’s gospel reading, with this story. Nicodemus was a Jew, a Pharisee, the consummate insider. He came to Jesus by night. The Samaritan woman was the consummate outsider, both in her own community and in relation to the Jewish community. Yet her encounter with Jesus took place in the blazing midday sun. Is this an allusion to chapter 1: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome (grasp) it”?

Or perhaps another allusion to chapter 1. After John the Baptist identifies Jesus to his own disciples, pointing to him and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Andrew and another one follow Jesus. When Jesus notices them, he asks, “What are you looking for?

They respond, “Where are you staying?”

To which Jesus responds, “Come and see.”

In this story, after her encounter with Jesus, the woman runs back to town and tells the people, “Come and see.” She is the first to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the first to share the good news of Jesus with others, the first evangelist.

But there’s more to the story than that. And it’s hard not to read our own situation into the Samaritan woman’s experience.

Social distancing, a concept that was unknown to us two weeks ago is now on our minds constantly. But even if we didn’t call it that, social isolation and ostracism has been common throughout human history. Indeed, the Samaritan woman herself experienced social isolation. She came to the well in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the day, alone, because she was marginalized by her community. Tasks like these were most often communal ones in premodern, rural cultures. Women who had to do the same thing did it together, so women would come together to the well, chatting, gossiping as they did. It was a time of fellowship. But this woman, because of her status came to the well by herself.

But when she arrived, she discovered someone else was there. And when he asked her for water, she practiced social distancing on him, reminding him of religious and cultural convention that prohibited their conversation, and prohibited him from drinking water from a jug that she had touched. Contamination, you see.

As their conversation deepened, they broached the cause of the division between Samaritan and Jew. Samaritans had built a temple to worship God on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews believed the only temple where valid worship could occur was Jerusalem. As they continued to chat, Jesus said:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

I am saying this in an empty nave, a place where people have worshiped for more than 160 years each Sunday. It is a place that we cherish; a place we gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is a place we love; it is a place where we encounter God, where we are the body of Christ. But today and for the foreseeable future, we will not be able to gather here for worship and fellowship. Our relationships with God and each other will be nourished not by hugs, or by bread and wine, but by all of the ways we connect thanks to modern technology—the telephone, social media. Even as we often criticize such technology for distracting us or for loosening the ties that bind us to our faith or our communities, now, we are going to have to rely on that technology and learn new ways of connecting.

Worship in spirit and in truth. It’s almost as if we are given a way forward. Jesus is reminding us that the building doesn’t matter all that much. He’s reminding us that in spite of the fact that Christianity is an embodied religion, that we worship a God made flesh, who lived among us, a God whose body suffered like ours do, a God who died like we do, but was raised again, worship and relationship happen in other ways, too.

May we find ways to nurture and deepen our relationships with each other and with God, and may we find ways to share God’s love in these difficult days.