By Will Brown
The inability of Christians to gather for corporate worship, and the restrictions under which corporate worship must take place where it is allowed at all, are some of the most onerous aspects of the COVID-19 Pandemic for the faithful. Many have spoken about the consolation they experience from singing and praying together, and from receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Consequently, the inability of many to participate in such fundamental habits of ecclesial life is indeed a trial.
Yet perhaps the trial could be mitigated by a reordering of our focus around the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. The imagery evoked in our eucharistic liturgies is twofold. On the one hand we speak of it as a meal, rooted in the Passover meal shared by our Lord and his disciples at the Last Supper, at which bread and wine were received and consumed. On the other hand, we speak of it as a re-presentation of and a participation in the events of Calvary, at which the Body and Blood of Christ were offered acceptably to the Father on our behalf.
Of course, these two sets of symbols — meal and sacrifice — are not mutually exclusive, nor, as far as I can tell, have they ever been. We find them together, for example, in this passage from the Iliad (Book 2), in which the “victims” are cattle:
Once the men had prayed and flung the barley,
first they lifted back the heads of the victims,
slit their throats, skinned them and carved away
the meat from the thighbones and wrapped them in fat,
a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.
And they burned these on a cleft stick, peeled and dry,
spitted the vitals, held them over Hephaestus’ flames
and once they’d charred the things and tasted the organs
they cut the rest into pieces, pierced them with spits,
roasted them to a turn and pulled them off the fire.
The work done, the feast laid out, they ate well
and no man’s hunger lacked a share of the banquet.
Even so, in our liturgy, “we now offer unto” God “holy gifts,” “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” while at the same time pleading that we “may worthily receive” them. Both sets of symbols, sacrifice and meal, are held together in the eucharistic canon of the Book of Common Prayer. And while at various times emphasis has been laid on the one, to the (near) exclusion of the other, in fact both are at work in the text and in the ritual.
In recent decades there has been a focus on the Eucharist as a communal meal, on account of which “altars” became “tables,” and were pulled away from the east walls of churches so that ministers and congregations might gather around them to “keep the feast.” It seems to me that this focus on the Eucharist as communal meal has bled into Christian spirituality such that the whole point of participation in the Eucharist, the primary mode of participation, is in the reception of the Sacrament. This may account for the great stress laid on “eucharistic hospitality” by some in recent years. What else is there to do at the Eucharist but receive?
The answer lies in the liturgy itself, as I have noted. If avenues of reception are foreclosed, avenues of offering remain open. I do not mean to disparage the idea of the Eucharist as a banquet. The imagery is indeed baked-in from its rootedness in the “Last Supper.” Yet during this “time of great sickness and mortality,” (1928 BCP p. 45), when it seems imprudent for many to gather in common for meals of any sort, it would perhaps be helpful to recall that the Eucharist is also a sacrifice, that at the end of the day, all that is required to offer the sacrifice is bread, wine, and a priest, and hence that our “bounden duty and service” may be carried on, on our behalf, when we are “for good cause prevented” (Canon I.17.3) from being present, or when we may participate only at a distance, by prayerful desire, perhaps assisted by Zoom or other such technological mediations.
Of course, this situation is not ideal. May it please God to deliver us from these strictures and the circumstances that have made them necessary! While the Eucharist is not only a meal, it is a meal, and one to which it is good to be summoned. Yet through twenty centuries of Christian fidelity, our bounden duty and service has been carried out in circumstances much more dire than ours, with and without congregations — from caves and catacombs, to battlefields and gulags. And each and every time the sacrifice is offered, it is offered for “the many” (Mark 14:24) for whom Christ died, wherever they are. The Eucharist is, after all, not another sacrifice than the “one oblation of himself once offered.”
Wherever you are on Sunday mornings during Coronatide, whether in church, at home, or in a hospital bed, your Christian duty remains the same: Lift up your hearts; give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
Fr. Will Brown currently serves as associate rector of All Saints’, and priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, both in Thomasville, Georgia.
Thank you, Fr. Brown. A timely and comforting essay.
St. John’s Church, Savannah
Thank you, David!