Thoughts on Virtual Communion in a Lockdown Era
Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher
The Eucharist is an ordered pattern of actions involving silence, touch and words. It’s inevitable that people should wonder if it is inhibited, diminished, or even impossible, when those participating either can’t receive the bread and cup or can’t physically be in the same space as the person presiding. We want to suggest ways in which holy communion might be valid, even in some ways enhanced, during this time of obligatory isolation.
When we celebrate together, whether as five or 50 or 500, the emphasis is on becoming one body, as Christ’s body. It’s also on the subtlety of the word ‘communion’: com means with and union means in – we are at the same time with God and in God, which combines our two heavenly aspirations. By receiving the bread and wine we are becoming the body of Christ – the Christ who said no one who eats and drinks in this way will ever be hungry or thirsty again. By sharing the peace before we receive Christ’s body and blood we ensure we are indeed one body receiving one body.
In all these ways the Eucharist is clearly not the same when experienced remotely. We can’t get the same sense of being one body that shared physical presence gives us – though online platforms can achieve a great deal in other ways. It’s a different sense of ‘with.’
But the present tense is not the only sense of holy communion. The Eucharist is just as much about the past and the future. When we celebrate communion we recall Jesus gathering the disciples at the Last Supper. We recall how he incorporated the Passover tradition and himself became the lamb of God whose sacrifice delivered the Hebrews from slavery. We recall Jesus’ words, ‘Do this and remember me.’ We reenact all the meals in the gospels, including the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus turns scarcity into abundance. We are making the past present now. Like a ring that reminds the wearer of a commitment made in the past, celebrating communion is a renewal of our conviction that in Jesus, God has given us everything we need.
And the future tense is no less significant. We believe that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, beyond death we shall be raised to everlasting life; and that such life is well represented by a banquet, at which, as in the parable, we eat with the whole panoply of those God has sent Jesus to invite. Our engagement with the outcast, the enemy and the stranger today is rooted in our awareness that these are the people beside whom we shall be sitting in glory. The Eucharist is an anticipation of the way we shall be spending eternity.
These two perspectives – the past and the future – are just as valid in virtual communion as they are in a conventional Eucharist. Indeed, shorn of the gifts, but also distractions, of live encounter, we may focus more explicitly on these past and future perspectives. That’s what it means for communion in some ways to be enhanced in this lockdown season. If it makes us long even more not just for the earthly encounter but for heavenly communion, it will indeed have proved to be a healthy form of extended Lenten discipline. The irony is that we think of our current condition as scarcity, and our regular celebrations as abundant. Yet in our regular celebrations we are far from the Jerusalem of the Last Supper or the New Jerusalem of the heavenly banquet – so you’d think we’d think of our regular state as one of scarcity. (Leaving aside the fact that the one group of people who already knew plenty about social distancing would have to be the conventional church congregation, who for centuries have found ways to disperse across the pews available very effectively.)
This is a time when Christians can identify with and learn from Jews like never before. Since 70 AD, Jews have prayed, lit candles, and kept Sabbath without being able to be present in the Temple. They have kept the prayers, known by heart, passing down the faith generation to generation. For Christians, offering the Eucharistic prayers faithfully though online worship and so forth is a way of Sabbath-keeping even without the consumption of elements. The Jews have a lot to teach Christians about knowing God’s presence when the tangible signs of worship are stripped away and sacred places of gathering are not accessible for a time.
What is required of us is to keep the feast. It may feel a terrible absence to offer the Eucharistic prayer without the consumption of elements, in this season keeping the feast is more akin to keeping a fast. Not a fast we have chosen, not the Lenten discipline we intended. But if we are to be God’s people who know how to keep the feast, we may also learn to faithfully keep this fast, and concurrently to keep the celebration of the paschal feast ever before us. To offer the prayer is to tell the story of salvation history and to know that same salvation comes to this time and this place, despite all.
The Eucharistic Prayer is a prayer of consecration. It also involves prayers of thanksgiving and of intercession. Yes, the elements are being blessed by the Holy Spirit through it, and yes we have become accustomed to think of that outcome of consecrated elements as the end product of the Eucharistic prayer. But perhaps now, as we keep the feast at a good social distance, we are invited to wonder at all that the Eucharistic prayer embodies, the manifold ways it beckons transformation and transfiguration of all the created world towards God’s goodness, and to know ourselves consecrated into God’s abundant life offered for the world.