Covid-19 — Eucharist online?

a mystical möbius take on Holy Communion 

I hope to reveal the mystical body of Christ to you with the words of this article. I do so while encouraging you to be mindful that seeing the image involved and actually tasting and experiencing the sacrament communally are two very different kinds of things. Scripture talks about the fragrance of Christ. I want to talk for a moment about the taste of Christ.

 

bread

 

Now, while obviously in my wheelhouse, this theologically technical topic is a bit different for the blog, what’s up? The Lord’s Supper is also the opposite of technical. So, mitigating Covid-19 by social distancing has taken a deep toll and we [local churches] need to get together, we viscerally miss getting together as the church. We also need to receive the sacrament, we viscerally miss receiving the Eucharist.

So, Covid-19‘s stay-safer-at-home reality and the resulting response of churches, that is, celebrating worship online, has given United Methodists another thing to fiercely disagree about. Some churches are celebrating Communion in online worship, and some are not. Not surprisingly, some of those who are not doing it are very upset with those who are. I write here to offer what may be another way of considering the sacrament. A more literal Holy Communion? Let’s see.

 

Eucharist meme

 

 

Sacred objects?

If you are a Christian, then a visit to a Friday evening or Saturday morning worship service at your local synagogue may present you with a startling surprise. In the front, the main [chancel] area of the worship space, on the worship table, you will see there two objects that are very familiar to those who regularly participate in Christian worship, e.g., bread and wine.

Bread and wine? In Jewish worship?

Yes. Prominently so.

Transformation

So, Jesus was a Jew his entire life. If bringing the transformative power of the good news [e.g., Spirit and matter are not-two] was Jesus’ job, then why would we think that he would use anything but Jewish religious symbols to do his job among the Jewish people, especially with his own disciples? Jesus transformed Jewish religious symbols to use in casting his all inclusive vision of the new Adam (e.g., humanness reflecting cosmic connection, “all in all”—[Ephesians 1:23]).

Jesus (a mystic) used the very familiar, bread and wine—both are everyday objects, and both are symbolic religious objects to Jews—to reveal the mystical body of Christ to his disciples. It was one of Jesus’ final teachings and a crucially important piece of his good news message going forward. He had realized his time had come and the lesson could not wait:

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

[Luke 22.19-20]

Jesus was linking/sharing his life, his ministry, his message, and mostly his person with the future giving and receiving of bread and wine among his disciples (later, the Church).

Later, the Apostle Paul (a mystic) taught, in very practical terms to both Jews and Gentiles, that the church is the mystical body of Christ.

  “…the church,  (23) which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. [Ephesians 1.22-23]

“He is the head of the body, the church; …” [Colossians 1.8a]

“…, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” [Colossians 1.24b]

What is all becomes part. And what is part becomes whole (holistic, holy).

Using my aesthetic eyeglasses, there’s little I can say to that except: beautiful.

Embodiment

There is no other ritual in Christian tradition more about embodiment than the Eucharist. We’re talking about a sacred ritual in which Christ’s spiritual presence with us is transformed into Christ’s physical presence in us. The ritual in which those who Saint Paul liked to say were en Christo receive Christ into their very own bodies. By being “en Christo,” I think he meant those who, by their baptism, knew well they were always and already in the Presence of Christ. People who needed the tangible spiritual nourishment of The Lord’s Supper to fuel their acts of being Christ’s physical-spiritual-actual presence in the world.

gods presence

 

Theology – a question of ‘Presence’

A chief theological question or problem with the Eucharist is the question of the Real Presence. Is Christ in some way really present in the physical elements and/or ritual of Holy Communion? There is no shortage of literature for one to read that talks of the different streams of thought and debate on the question of the Real Presence. There are basically three legacy thought frameworks to consider the question of Christ’s Presence in the Lord’s Supper.

  • Transubstantiation is the orthodox Roman Catholic position: the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the physical body and blood of Christ during the prayer, while the “accidents” (see Aristotle and Aquinas) remain those of bread and wine.
  • Consubstantiation is Luther’s view. On the understanding that the bread and wine do not magically become the body and blood of Christ.  They remain bread and wine, but the presence of Christ is said to be “in, with, and under the elements.”  Therefore, in receiving the bread and wine, one also symbolically receives the body and blood of Christ. Lutheran’s essentially make the shift from actual to symbolic presence, that is, they share a symbolically invoked/achieved physical presence.
  • Spiritual Presence is Calvin’s view. Here, Christ is seen to be spiritually present by the Holy Spirit, so that the Supper is a true communion with Christ, who feeds us with His body and His blood. Clearly, this essentially abandons any notion of the ritual being an actual physical connection with Christ and plainly claims a symbolic spiritual connection and union with Christ.

John Wesley and United Methodism are aligned most nearly with Calvin’s real, spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament. A real, albeit symbolic communion with G-d in Christ.

As a cradle Methodist I’m just fine with the United Methodist [UM] doctrine on Holy Communion. It essentially reflects John Wesley’s understanding. In my time as UM clergy in local churches, I taught what Wesley taught. I do imagine this doctrine of spiritual presence has pragmatically been the most inclusive approach in a culture steeped in scientific materialism.

Added to the problem of Christ’s Presence, the debate extends to the question of locality. Do the officiant and the celebrants all need to be present in proximate space for the Eucharistic Prayer and liturgy to work? In other words, however we think about it, we agree that Christ is present in the Eucharist. So, is proximate presence of all the celebrants required to directly share in Christ’s Presence? How does quantum entanglement effect the ‘Presence‘ conversation in terms of time and locality?

a mystical möbius take

I take another (somewhat unique as near as I know) approach altogether. I did mention it to my MDiv credo committee back there, and it peaked a small bit of interest. However, no follow-on conversation ever really came of it and I wrote my paper in Wesleyan terms. So, what has been obvious to me and yet seemingly invisible to tradition? Just a simple very literal way to understand Holy Communion. Let’s take a look and see.

So, I’m certainly in no way anti-science and yet I have a way of understanding the Real Presence that most closely aligns with the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation. That’s right, I genuinely believe the bread and wine of the Eucharistic ritual truly become the actual physical body of Christ. And yet, in receiving the Lord’s Supper, Christ tastes like King’s Hawaiian Bread and Welch’s Grape Juice to me. Other’s taste Christ as flat-bread and red wine. Still others taste a Communion wafer and red wine. Even setting Aristotle, Aquinas, and “the accidents” aside: “How could any of that possibly be true!?!,” I can almost hear you asking right now.

Actually, it’s very straightforward. The Roman Catholic liturgy expresses orthodox doctrine in that through the ritual sacrament of Holy Communion the bread and wine actually becomes the ‘body and blood of Christ.’ I could not possibly agree more with any doctrinal statement. Again, you no doubt wonder, How?

Well, I ask you: When you eat bread and drink juice, what does it actually become? Exactly. Through the process of digestion, the bread and wine becomes body and blood. When we receive the gifts, Jesus reaches into time and reminds us that we, his disciples, both individually and communally, are the body and blood of Christ. Not to get all scientific about our mystical account of it, however, quantum entanglement may allow us to say, just as our theology understands, that Holy Communion is non-temporal and non-local. I’m not prepared to argue that G-d cannot do that.

Not that I couldn’t possibly find a way to live with it, with a quantum understanding, I could. Still, I do feel the bell-ringing aspect—that is, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, during the epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, a priest or server rings a bell three times to signal the consecration of the gifts—is an overreach. I think, along with Luther’s general critique, that this feature of the ritual has a magical feel to it. Obviously, on my take, The Holy Spirit, by natural processes, consecrates the bread and wine in us, in our bodies, we are the ringing bells. In the sacrament we are tangibly reminded that we, you and I, are the body and blood of Christ. Even in our apparent separation we are mystically (not merely symbolically) connected (quantum entangled) en Christo (in Christ) through the sacrament. And, always and already so.

Wearing scientific eyeglasses regarding our mystical account of it, I feel we can say that Holy Communion is non-temporal and non-local. This has important practical implications right now.

Perhaps in these isolated safer-at-home times we really need a reminder, a string tied around our finger if you will, helping us to stay aware that we are, always and already, mystically connected. And we really are in this together. I cannot imagine a more suitable way to meaningfully taste and touch the reality of our connection to full humanness in each other through Christ.

What is all [Christ] becomes part [bread and wine]. And what is part [bread, wine, you and I] becomes whole (holy, en Christo).

For Um clergy in agreement

Using this mystical understanding of Communion, how would you amend (with introduction and asides) the Eucharistic Prayer to include a Christ-is-becoming-in-us, Covid-19 inspired, more literal understanding of the gathering of the scattered flock through the sacrament?

For those UM clergy who are adamantly opposed

Covid-19 has driven society to a desperate need for the help of churches and faith communities in finding and celebrating human connection. We really need to build and strengthen community, social bonds and human resilience right now. If your mind, or heart, does not allow you (in good conscience) to celebrate Communion with your congregation online, then please consider integrating this literal Christ-is-becoming-in-us interpretation into writing a liturgy for a Wesleyan “Love Feast” online, and promote and celebrate that.

I don’t feel this interpretation takes away from the orthodox UM position, rather, I feel it adds helpfully to our ministry right now. I see no way for ‘charges’ to follow from an adapted “Love Feast.”

[this post approx. 2,000 words (8 mins)]

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?

Note: I know, trying to introduce a big-picture idea like Spiral Dynamics (a complex developmental anthropology) in this format is ambitious. So, I’m using a serial-approach. Blog introduction (June 30, 2018). First in series (July 1, 2018).

social-media-share-tools-meme
SD Worldview Color Key
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3 thoughts on “Covid-19 — Eucharist online?

  1. I grew up mostly outside the church. When I was 15 we moved nearer to a town and we started attending a church, This small Kansas town had two churches. The Lutheran and the Presbyterians. I was baptized as a Presbyterian at near the age of 16. While in college I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. For nearly 20 years I have attended a Friends Meeting. There were at least 30 people on the Quaker Zoom call. Quakers worship in silence sensitive to the nearness of Spirit. A virtual environment is well suited for this. I usually sit near the front and only see people’s faces on the way in and the way out. On Zoom I could see everyone’s face all the time.

    Eucharist online? Yes, I experience your essay as if it were bread and wine. A sermon for our times. Your post was a good addition to my Quaker communion in Spirit. It nourishes my academic and spiritual needs. One of the things I liked about the Episcopal Church was the Communion, the wafer and the wine.

    Like

    1. Thanks for writing, David!

      Some colleagues tell me that they are seeing big increases in the number of people engaging with their churches now that they are doing “church” online. Covid-19 has provided a timely shaking-up of faith communities. We’ll see how churches and other faith communities respond in the medium and long term.

      Like

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