Editor’s Note: In times of crisis, many people turn to religion. In our time of trial, religion itself must shut its physical doors to keep people safe. As readers may know, some religious leaders are discouraged or even banned from entering places of worship to perform remote ceremonies.
People’s health and safety remains a primary concern across faith communities. Yet simply removing the Eucharist, the most sacred act of worship for Christians, is not easy. This shared moment is the culmination of the liturgical service. The bread and the cup are the central mystery to individual and communal faith, sanctifying them and sealing them in grace.
As institutions continue to seek best practices while maintaining virtual connection, different religious groups are asking themselves: what does a particular religious community look like when piety becomes digital? Is that even possible? We share one Episcopal priest’s response, and welcome more Marginal Notes by other religious communities creatively keeping the human spirit fed in these times.
A friend of mine once trudged through a Canadian blizzard to assist at the morning Eucharist of his parish priest. His priest told him he should not have come. My friend replied that if he had not come, the priest would not have been able to celebrate the Eucharist – our rubrics require a congregation. The priest assured my friend that he was always surrounded by the communion of saints, the entire court of heaven, a cloud of witnesses: he was never alone while celebrating the Eucharist. We affirm this in the Eucharistic Prayer, when we acknowledge that we are in the company “of the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and prophets, and of all our brothers and sisters, living and departed.”
Writing about the ‘virtual Eucharist’ requires careful reflection and precise language. We have millennia of Eucharistic theology on which to draw, but we find ourselves with the previously unimaginable possibilities of the internet. The Church has weathered circumstances similar to those in which we now stand, but it has never had the digital resources that we have to address the deep need all people share for inclusion and connection, to bring the comfort of the divine liturgy into isolated peoples’ homes.
Let us begin by making an important distinction: offering the Eucharist via the internet creates a virtual sacred space, a place in our homes and hearts for prayer, silence, reflection, and deep listening. It is not a spectator sport or a game show, during which we fire off comments and observations: it is church, not chatter. I am truly gratified that so many people from around the world and across the United States have responded so positively to what many churches offer through remote streaming services, but new forms call for new ways of practicing piety.
As we come to worship in innovative ways, let us not abandon traditional forms that might feel familiar to many. In St. John Henry Newman’s private chapel, the photographs of his friends are still arranged at the back of the altar where he celebrated Mass: he would pause for long periods, gazing at their faces while praying for them. We can gather the images of our family and friends around our table as we gather them in our hearts and in our prayers. As a way of participating more fully in the virtual Eucharist, I suggest that you prepare a sacred space, spread a cloth and prepare a table with bread and wine, candles perhaps, and any objects that will help you – a cross, an icon, a statue – and pieces that bring to mind those things closest to your heart.
At the Eucharistic Prayer this Sunday, I invite those participating in our digital communities across the globe to focus on the bread and wine you have in front of you. At Communion time, participate by consuming those elements. But many wonder: are these elements truly the Body and Blood of Christ?
Traditional theology would likely come down on the side of ‘no,’ but as I mentioned above, traditional theology knew nothing of the internet. In such times, I lean towards the theology of the Eastern Church over the Western. Instead of focusing on questions of validity, I will look to mystery. Let us recall that the power of the Holy Spirit work marvels, to ‘blow wherever it wills’. After the resurrection, the apostles locked the doors and windows of the room in which they sought to isolate themselves, and yet Jesus appeared in their midst: that same risen Jesus will not be daunted by the barriers we choose, or those that are forced upon us. One way or another, wherever we are, Jesus will be present to us, and with us, and in us.
We, like many faith communities, hope to live-steam with the bare minimum of participants in order to remain in compliance with the orders of the Department of Public Health. And so, wherever and however and whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we are in a holy communion with a vast throng of believers, past, present and yet to come. We are in communion with one another and with our God.
Father Terry Gleeson is a native of Sydney, Australia, educated at St Patrick’s College, Manly and The General Seminary, New York. He is the rector of All Saints’ Palo Alto.