By Junius Johnson
It is a strange moment in the life of the Church: to show love to our neighbors we refrain from what is most vital in our outreach to them, namely, meeting together to celebrate word and sacrament. How right we are to do so is a question for a different day. Given that we are doing so, what then becomes of the Eucharist, which is celebrated by and for the faithful? This question will admit of multiple answers, at least one of which, I hope, will in every case be the administration of the Eucharist to parishioners in their homes, with all due precautions taken. But, in addition to this, a rehabilitation of the notion of spiritual reception will be helpful.
The Eucharist was instituted to confer grace upon the people of God. It is this grace that we come to the altar to receive. We do not come to receive bread and wine for their own sakes; rather, we receive bread and wine so that by them we might receive something else. There is a traditional distinction between the created things (creatures) on the altar (bread and wine) and the grace that is conferred. For the sake of ease, let’s call what we sense on the altar the elements of the sacrament, and what God gives by means of them the grace of the sacrament.
On a normal Sunday, what happens when someone approaches the altar to communicate varies. Consider four people: Mary, who has confessed her sin with an attentive, penitent heart and comes to the liturgy of the altar filled with longing for mercy and gratitude for the sacrifice of Christ; Richard, who is baptized, but is unrepentant of his sin and nevertheless approaches; Susan, who is not baptized, and doesn’t believe in any of this stuff, but approaches because she doesn’t want to stand out; and Bill, who knows nothing of the Eucharist, but comes into the sanctuary on Monday, desperate and starving, and while rummaging discovers the reserved host and eats it.
As a result, the church has traditionally distinguished between two ways of eating the sacrament (Augustine of Hippo and the Medieval scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas, do this). One can eat it sacramentally, which is to eat the consecrated elements (which are the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood). One can also eat spiritually, which is to receive the benefits of Christ’s body and blood. Ideally, one eats both sacramentally and spiritually, but it is possible to do only one but not the other.
To return to our examples, all four are eating the same bread consecrated by the priest; that is to say, each consumes the vehicle of grace. But, in addition to the elements of the sacrament, Mary receives the grace of the sacrament, because she approaches in the proper manner. Richard does not receive this grace, because he is unwilling to humble himself and to repent of his sin. He probably, in fact, receives condemnation, for he is disrespecting the sacrament of grace. Susan also doesn’t receive the grace, but she probably doesn’t receive any condemnation either, for she is not trying to make fun of it or disrespect it. Bill also doesn’t receive grace, for he does not even know that it is consecrated bread. Likewise he receives no condemnation (besides that for theft), because he does not know that this is even thought to be a holy thing.
Mary, Richard, and Susan all eat sacramentally, because they consume the elements of the sacrament, and they all know they are eating the elements of the sacrament. Bill does not eat sacramentally; he just eats, because he is unaware that these are sacramental elements. Only Mary eats spiritually, because only Mary receives the spiritual grace that it is the whole point of the sacrament.
Now, anything God can do through a creature, God can also do directly. This is because the creature adds nothing to God’s power, and takes its entire power from God. Likewise, what God can do through a sacrament, God can do apart from a sacrament. The full range of possibilities can be seen in Baptism, where there is also an element (water) and a grace (justification, regeneration). In the case of one who believes and whose Baptism is deferred, the grace comes before the sacrament (see Acts 10:47). In the case of a baptized infant, at least part of it comes after, when the child assumes responsibility for his or her own faith (see Acts 19). And in cases like that of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), who immediately upon believing identifies water and is baptized, it is simultaneous.
So also with the Eucharist: the grace that is given there may also be given apart from it. So we must add a fifth case to our list: Veronica, a devout, baptized believer, who is stranded on a desert island. Nevertheless, she worships regularly by recalling Scripture and praying the liturgy. And when she comes to the moment of reception, she prays that the Lord would give her grace. Veronica, like Mary, eats spiritually. Unlike Mary, though, she does not eat sacramentally. Mary’s situation is ideal: one wants the faithful to eat sacramentally and, by doing so, to eat spiritually (for God instituted sacramental as well as spiritual eating, and it is only in sacramental eating that it is made plain just what and how the sacrament signifies: spiritual eating presupposes sacramental eating at some time, even if not at all times). Richard, who eats sacramentally, but not spiritually, is all too common. Veronica is extraordinary, because she receives that which is on offer through the ordinary channel of communal worship outside of that ordinary channel.
In these present circumstances, the faithful believer is most like Veronica. Our homes have become our desert islands, and we are powerless to extricate ourselves from our predicament. But while we wait for rescue, we keep the flame of our faith alive by our regular worship through contrition, confession, prayer, the reading of the word, and the singing of hymns. But more than this, we advance in our faith by coming to Christ offered to us in the sacramental remedy and consuming spiritually where we cannot consume sacramentally.
What does this look like? Consider the following prayer for spiritual eating:
Dear Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I desire to possess you within my soul. And since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to you, together with all your faithful people gathered around every altar of your Church, and I embrace you with all the affections of my soul. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen. (ACNA BCP, p. 677).
As my family and I watch the livestream of the liturgy celebrated by our parish leadership, we turn to this prayer and pray it while the priests are receiving communion.
My point here has not been to argue that the normal way of receiving communion is unimportant, or to say that nothing is lost if we receive only spiritually. Rather, it has been to point out that we already have the theological resources in place to make sense of the reality that has been forced upon us, and that the extraordinary grace of God given to the faithful by spiritual eating is sufficient to sustain us until we may be restored to the fullness of the divine plan for our sacramental life.
Junius Johnson is the author of four scholarly books, including the forthcoming The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty. His work focuses on harnessing the riches of the theological tradition for contemporary reflection. He has taught at Yale and Baylor universities, and resides in Waco, TX with his wife and two children.