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.