By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
A quarter of a year has passed since the pandemic hit in the Western world, and most Anglican churches have been closed to regular congregations through this time. The bishops plan to reopen churches in Ontario on September, and I pray that we will be kept in relative safety. But things do not look nearly as rosy in many other parts of the world, and just two hours south of me lies the border of the nation that has become the epicenter of the pandemic, the United States of America. Regardless of whether the directives of our bishops in the wake of the pandemic have contained practical wisdom, spiritual clarity, or even theological coherence, for many of us the disruption to regular worship in our churches is here to stay for a while, whether we like it or not, and we must steel our nerves for it.
The recording and live-streaming of worship long precedes its feverish adoption during our present pandemic. It has obvious precedents in modern televangelism, and in the frequently televised Masses celebrated by Pope John Paul II. In more recent years, some traditionalist churches have live-streamed their liturgies to teach and evangelize a new generation interested in the old traditions. So, live-streaming the liturgy is not quite as novel as one might think. The novelty we find today is not live-streaming as such, but the strange ideas about the nature of worship presupposed by so many of the churches that have adopted this technology.
Surely no sane Roman Catholic watching John Paul II offer the Mass at Yankee Stadium thought they were participating in the Mass through the screen. Even the viewer duped by a televangelist does not (hopefuly!) think they can be baptized through the television screen. But today we have confused clergy and misguided laity who not only think that we are personally present for the liturgy by watching it on the screen, but also promote “virtual Eucharists.” If the spread of the pandemic has revealed the sickness of a social consciousness that has lost a robust sense for civic duty, the way our churches have responded to the state of emergency has laid bare how our Church has lost the very cultic sense of her divine liturgies.
While I generally sympathize with those who are skeptical about the value of live-streamed worship, I do think that there is some limited value to be found in it. Part two of this essay will explore this. But before I write about how I think we might better engage with worship live streams, I wish to meditate on what it even means for us to participate in the divine liturgies in a distinctively Christian sense. Without a conscious theological reflection on the meaning of human nature and liturgical activity, we cannot get to the roots of the problems of “virtual worship” beyond a visceral reaction to its uncanny nature.
For the Christian, authentic life can take place only through the embodied life of human flesh, even while we struggle against our fleshly desires. In stark opposition to the perennial gnostic temptations that lurk in the margins of heretical Christian thought or Vedic doctrines that teach this temporal world to be illusory, Christian doctrine and practice teaches that sanctification occurs not by an escape from the flesh but by its transfiguration in Christ. It is fundamental to Christian anthropology that, as St. Thomas Aquinas says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, “[the] soul is not the whole human being, only part of one: my soul is not me.” It is for this reason that the truth of our faith is revealed in our conduct and made real by our practice, which all manifests in the use of our bodies.
Our own personal bodies matter because they are temples of the Holy Spirit, which means that our bodies are not merely our own private possessions to be used and abused at will (1 Cor. 6:15–20). It is in relation to this teaching, not the mistaken importation of liberal democratic principles into Christian thought, with which we must understand the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” We participate in the “universal priesthood” insofar as we are all individually custodians of the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the sanctity of our bodies is itself grounded in their being members of the Body of Christ, the Church, which has Christ the High Priest as its head.
There is a complex of intimately interwoven lessons to be learned from Paul the Apostle here. For Christian doctrine and practice it is impossible — prohibited — to reduce the notion of bodily integrity to individualistic autonomy. On one hand, modern libertarian conceptualizations of freedom are inadmissible, because any expression of our personal integrity cannot be abstracted from the Body of Christ we comprise together (“Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ?”). On the other hand, our bodily integrity has little to do with atomized freedom because the integrity of the body comes from its sacred status as a temple of God. This is just not meant metaphorically but also quite literally — the body’s sanctity is not derived from an abstract concept of human dignity but from the doxological use for which it is set aside (“therefore glorify God in your body”). We all share in the priesthood of our Head by offering ourselves upon the altars that are our bodies. These Pauline images are not simply somatic metaphors — they are analogies which describe the ontological reality of the Church and the essence of our own individual creaturely existence.
Both Scripture and our inherited liturgies teach us that the fundamental purpose of the Mystical Body is to give itself wholly to the glorification of God. It is this cultic function of the Mystical Body which is primary; everything else is secondary to the doxological consummation of being, and it is only with this sensitivity that we can properly understand why St. Benedict called the Divine Office the Opus Dei, the “Work of God.” This work which has no “practical purpose,” cares naught for “efficiency,” and produces no commodity for consumption, is that which is to be preferred above all other things (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 43). We cannot simply dismiss what St. Benedict says here as a peculiar monastic fancy that is irrelevant to us outside the cloisters, because the monastic life is an attempt to embody St. Paul’s teachings in an orderly, disciplined fashion. This devotion is not a pathologically rarefied monkish excess — St. Paul himself makes it clear enough that to be human is to be homo eucharisticus: “rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and give thanks (eucharisteite) for all things” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). A life that prefers anything else is less than truly human, because it chooses something other than union with God. It is a life drunk on a distorted exercise of the will and entrapped in the passions.
This Christian life as homo eucharisticus is one and the same with the proper understanding of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the two cannot be properly understood unless they are comprehended together. It is because our bodies serve as temples of the Holy Spirit that the Christian life as homo eucharisticus can only take place in the flesh while we remain in the Church Militant, and it is for this reason that Christian doctrine is wholly incompatible with the strange tendency in the modern Western consciousness to reduce the “spiritual” to a purely internal, immaterial, and private sphere.
It is because the essence of the faith cannot be abstracted to a disembodied spiritual realm or a virtual reality that the reality of the Mystical Body also cannot be reduced to an “invisible Church.” The Church is also always visible in the flesh, and the Opus Dei is fully given in the intentional, concrete sacrifice of thanksgiving said with our lips and expressed with the signs of our bodies in corporate (embodied, and fashioned into a body) gathering. There is no alternative because any kind of radical dualism is impermissible for us, whether applied to our person or the Church as a whole. It is impermissible because our flesh was assumed by our Lord to be saved; impermissible because God beheld our flesh and saw that it was good; impermissible because our flesh together comprises the Body of the Lord. The flesh is not incidental, and it is for this reason that Christ rose again in his glorified flesh.
It is for this reason that St. Benedict’s Rule implies that the “Work of God” is indistinguishable from gathering in choir —monks do not pray the Divine Office alone in their cells, but abandon whatever they were doing and “[hasten] with the greatest speed, yet with seriousness” to the oratory. In a fully literal sense, this instruction might only apply to the professed religious who dedicate their lives to the common offering of the Divine Office, but it also teaches something fundamental to our divine liturgies that remain true for the rest of us. As the prayers of the Church, the liturgy is not a private devotion, even if most of us who are devoted to the Office pray it alone. But even such circumstances do not, and cannot change the reality that when we pray the Office alone we are still praying the public liturgy of the Church, not merely a personal or familial devotion. Most importantly, the Rule shows us that temporal space and bodily presence matter. As far as circumstances permit, one must go to worship in common with fellow Christians to offer the same prayers of the Church together. The homo eucharisticus is not an atom to itself, because we are all members of the greater Body of Christ.
I hope by now I have been able to give at least at a vague sense of the nature of our bodies and their cultic role in Christian doctrine and practice. If what I have written above about our flesh and our divine liturgies is true, then the main problem of the idea (only an idea, because it has no reality) of “virtual Eucharist” is not that it implicitly rejects the doctrine of the real presence but because it is utterly unmoored from the nature of the sacraments.
The succinct Augustinian definition of the sacraments as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace is distorted when “visibility” is reduced to simple visual representation, abstracted from the fleshly corporality which grounds its reality. The Eucharist only makes sense when it is celebrated in the fleshly visibility of the Mystical Body gathered in common worship, because it is only there that the Eucharist is made manifest — real. The Eucharist is more than just a memorial, but it is nevertheless the anamnesis of the Last Supper, which requires the objective form and content of not only the Eucharistic elements but also “our selves, our souls, and bodies” which we offer unto God as a “reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” It is for this reason that Holy Communion cannot be celebrated by the priest alone at the altar, a tradition which goes back to ancient times and which still holds true, a fact which cannot be circumvented by having someone watching from behind the screen like a spiritual voyeur.
In the second part of this essay, I will try to offer some tentative appreciation for the relative value of live-streaming worship.
Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a lay reader in the Diocese of Niagara of the Anglican Church of Canada, and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.