I don’t know if I remember the last time I went this long without communion. Maybe I never have.
Public gatherings in the church that I serve have been suspended since the middle of March. On March 15th we last gathered for in-person worship with a Service of the Word. We last shared the Eucharist together March the 8th, over 3 weeks ago. And to be sure, those three weeks have felt like 3 years with the daily, hourly even, updates about the state of the COVID-19 Pandemic across the globe and in our respective nations and in our local communities.
My congregation is far from alone, all churches in the city I live in can only have up to 10 people in attendance if they are still holding public worship. Most cancelled in-person gatherings weeks ago and have moved to streaming worship online or finding other means to maintain relationship and connections like phone calls, emails, recorded messages, letters, zoom meetings etc…
The need to practice physical distancing measures have been taken up for the sake of each other. A sacrifice of community for the sake of community.
And it hasn’t been easy to cease our in-person gatherings.
Many people are working from home, often with kids who are schooling at home. Others are health-care workers putting in long, stress filled hours. Still others are elderly or immunocompromised and self-isolating, not even venturing out for the basics but relying on others.
We all have been making do the best we can. We have been worshipping on Facebook live. I have been writing regular pastoral letters to our email list, on the phone with others, sending lots of texts. We are physically apart, but socializing and relationship maintaining as best we all can.
But it is hard.
There was a death in our church community, and the funeral was a small, private and brief grave-side service in the cold tundra of Manitoba. Not how we would usually gather to worship and pray in the face of death.
Still others have had surgeries cancelled, and others laid off or losing business and income.
Things aren’t normal, our community isn’t as it should be. There is something fundamentally changed and different about us in this time.
We are fasting from each other. Not by choice, but by circumstance.
I am starved for community.
Even with the zoom meetings, Facebook live worship, and FaceTime calls. Even with the emails, social media, text messages and phone calls.
We are fasting from community and it sucks.
And for many Christians, this first fast is necessitating a secondary fast.
The first fast is from the Body of Christ that is the gathered assembly: the people that you usually see in the pew next to yours, hear the voice of behind you during the hymns, hug during the sharing of the peace, pass the offering plate to, sidle up shoulder to shoulder with at the communion rail, shake hands with on the way to coffee and a cookie. The people that have attended to your baptism, and children’s baptism, and grand-children’s baptism, who have marked decades of Christmases and Easters with you, who have served egg-salad sandwiches with you at many funerals, flipped burgers with you at church picnics, called when your dad was in the hospital, baked a casserole when your grandma died, sent a card for your birthday.
And not being able to gather for in person worship has meant not being able to share in the Lord’s Supper.
Fasting from one Body, means fasting from the other.
In a world where so much feels like it is being ripped away, to have to sacrifice the Lord’s Supper can feel cruel.
If you have been anywhere near clergy on social media in the past few weeks, you will have seen the prominent debate around this issue. In particular, a strong division over whether or not it is possible to have communion “online.” For a pastor or priest to preside on one end of the camera and for a parishioner to receive the Eucharist on the other end of the computer.
Already several pastors and congregations have begun offering “virtual” communion. And this is being done so as to offer comfort and familiarity, connection and relationship. Which I completely understand as someone charged with the care of a congregation. I get it.
And yet, I simply cannot deny that this time is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It is disconnected and isolating.
And trying to find a loophole through which to keep on as if nothing can change our worship life and the way we are connected as a community seems disingenuous.
In fact, I wonder what it says to the world beyond our church communities about how this pandemic is affecting us. Even in the midst of this crisis that impacts nearly every arena of society, the only real impact on our worship life is watching church from the comfort of my couch or kitchen table rather than our favourite pew?
While I often try to name and promote the incredible power of social media and digital technology to create real honest community, I don’t pretend that it is no different than the in body, in flesh experience of in person community. The power of digital media is to create community despite being separated by distance or circumstance. To stay connected to family living far away, friends across the nation and across borders. And also create new connections. To meet new people across the world who share the same interests, passions and faith. Some of the people I most regularly talk to in my day to day life are people I have never met in person, yet people who hold an important place in my life.
But the power of in person community is to connect in an incarnational way. To recognize that my in flesh experience of my siblings in Christ imparts a sense of the incarnate Christ. To hear, see, touch, smell and taste the body of the assembly and the sacrament in person is to hear, see, touch, smell and taste Christ. And to do so very particularly in the Eucharist that we boldly claim is an embodied reality of the divine.
An embodied reality of salvation, forgiveness and life.
This essential quality of the Lord’s supper cannot be communicated digitally, no matter our desire for it. When I order something from Amazon it doesn’t come flying out of my computer screen at my face. It still needs to be picked up off a shelf, mailed, transported, and delivered to me.
The limitation isn’t the Holy Spirit’s, but the medium’s.
We still have the Word.
The Word which has always been mediated outside of the body, in language, time and space.
The church has from the beginning used the technology available to transmit the Word. Whether it was Paul’s writings and the writings of the early church, or the art and music of the Middle Ages, or the printing press of the Reformation or the telegraph, telephone, radio and television of the modern era. (None of which became means for transmitting the Eucharist remotely).
The proclamation of the Word has always transcended bodies and mediums even as the Lord’s Supper has been deeply rooted in our bodies and flesh. Our assembled body in worship – the local congregation or ministry community – is transformed into the very Body of Christ that we partake in when we gather to hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper together.
And so in this time of imposed fasting from the gathered Body of Christ found in local assemblies, we must also fast from the Eucharist. Not because church leaders, theologians and bishops have reminded us that it can be good for us… but because we have no other choice. Because we are staying home and staying away in order to love our neighbour.
Our fast from the Body of Christ has been imposed upon us by circumstance. No matter how much we, as clergy, desire to care for and love our people in the midst of crisis, we cannot continue to deny that we are not deeply affected and changed by the physical distancing measures of this time, even as they may last months. We cannot pretend that our worship life isn’t deeply altered by having to #StayHome. We cannot portray to the world that we are little enclaves of ritual unimpacted by the suffering of the world around us. We cannot find loopholes through this imposed fast, we are separated in a real and life-changing way.
And most importantly we cannot continue to act as though the Word of God is insufficient.
Because it is more than enough.
The Word alone in this moment of crisis is all that we need. It is enough to offer the care and love that our people need.
And it is the vital thing that we need to share with an imminently suffering world.
Sunday morning zoom communion seems empty and callous in the face of those dying alone in quarantine, to those unable to get a ventilator to fill their lungs with life saving oxygen, those unable to receive a hospital bed because there is a waiting list already, those suffering at home and unable to breathe enough to find some bread and wine to serve themselves, or too sick to keep down any food. Let alone all those who cannot be online.
Virtual communion rings too true to the Eucharistic controversy in 1 Corinthians 11, where some would feast while others starved. It rings too true to one of the primary objections of the Reformers that priests were saying mass by themselves in dark corners of churches to earn merit remotely for paying customers.
We cannot try to tend to our own fears in our own little bubbles while the world suffers. We cannot try to pretend that our gathering in person, in physical bodies together as the local assembly is not an essential part of the Eucharist. We cannot give into the fear that God’s Word is not all that we need, even as we feel helpless to do much of anything meaningful.
God’s promise to us from the beginning of creation is that the Word alone in this or any moment of crisis is all that we need.
The Word’s promise of mercy, life and salvation might be the only hope that will bring any comfort to so many who are about to land in our laps as clergy and as communities of the faithful. Words that have to be spoke through phones and tablets held up to the dying in quarantine, streamed to the scared and isolated suffering at home, to the overburdened front-line workers who may have no other source of strength left to care.
The Word of God is not only what we as the scattered Body needs, but the world needs right now. As governments strain and crack under the pressure, as people struggle pay rent and buy food, as we hope that a treatment or vaccine is around corner but will take some time, the Good News of Christ the Word meets us here and now. If there is an emergency that the church is about to face, it is not how to get communion to the faithful stuck at home, but how to speak God’s promise of grace, mercy and life to the sick, scared, grieving and dying among us.
And the Word of God will meet our needs, despite our fears.
The Word of God who brings life to the dying, mercy to the suffering, and comfort to the lonely is enough.
The Word of God who has endured this passion journey before us is sufficient.
The Word of God who promises that COVID-19 will not define us. That social distancing and isolation will not be all the we are. That death will not be our end.
Even as Good Friday may loom larger than we ever imagined possible, the Word of God who walks with us out of the tomb at Easter is all the grace we need… God would not allow it to be any other way.
And so we fast.
Not because we want to or because it is good for us.
But because it is simply reality. We fast for the sake of our neighbour, for the sake of the world.
We fast from community, from the gathered Body of Christ. We fast from the Body and Blood of Christ, because we are fasting from community, from each other in flesh that reveals the incarnate Christ.
And yet in us, God still proclaims the Good News that the world needs to hear, that we need to hear.
And it will be enough.