A version of this was originally presented August 20, 2020, as part of a webinar on the role of Liturgy and Music in Formation, co-sponsored by the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP), the Anglican Theological Review, and Nashotah House Theological Seminary. The webinar can be viewed here.
David Foster Wallace gave a now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2005. He began with this story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
It is not until the end that Wallace finally gives the payoff for the story, telling the graduates that worship surrounds all of us, whether we are aware of it or not:
… in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
The fact that something like this is said in countless church youth groups doesn’t make it any less true. And the response is probably similar: some eye rolling while checking Instagram. Wallace goes on to say that what makes anything other than God dangerous to worship “is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into … .”
The solution he provides sounds a lot like Augustine’s notion of freedom. This is definitely not freedom to do anything we wish. Instead, as Wallace describes it, “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” In other words: freedom to choose the good.
My title is simple: The Loss of Ritual in Coronatide. I am intentionally coopting language to talk about this period of pandemic that Christians normally use to speak about the church’s seasons (Christmastide or Epiphanytide). Because it doesn’t take any convincing to see that this pandemic has exerted itself upon the whole world with an amazing kind of intensity. In fact, I think it’s probably true that Coronatide has exerted control over our lives with way more power than most Christians experience from the Church’s liturgy and seasons. That is serious enough.
Ephraim Radner just wrote a piece where he talks about how the pandemic is also having disastrous effects on the discipline of theology: He writes:
But the Time of the Virus is also exposing the superficiality of ecclesial witness more broadly. Churches have had little to say during this period beyond platitudes: encouragement, social responsibility, mutual care. Platitudes, of course, are generally truths; but they are truths that have become superficial (literally “flat”). Cross and resurrection have not been silenced in the Time of the Virus, only rendered banal, as ciphers for a common social good or as indicators of some motivating energy to keep us going. We praise God by thinking through God’s wondrous reality. But to do it well will require a renewed apprehension of the faith and motives that justify theological institutions and their work in the first place.
People are barely beginning to grapple with this. Shutting the doors to churches and classrooms, turning pastors into information-adepts, closing off communal interaction — all this raises the question of what exactly the Christian vocation is. What has God done in the world, in Christ, that makes Christian discipleship compelling, just here, just now, or anytime? Why have I been born, to live for a few decades and then to die? What is the meaning of my family, from whose elders I have been banished by the civil authorities?
These are all age-old questions — “To whom will we go?” Peter asks (Jn. 6:68). But for a long time our ecclesial cultures have mostly ignored them.
The pandemic has become a cloud, a specter that hangs over our lives. As everyone knows, most people who normally go to church, synagogue, or mosque, have been prevented from doing so. And as all of us who have tried to worship at home know, whether staring at a computer or television screen, it is only the palest shadow of praying and singing and engaging in the liturgy as a community. And if you have children, you probably wonder if it’s even possible to be engaged as a family in worship in front of a screen. Everything else we do in front of a screen has formed us to know that what is worshiped with this screen in anything but the God of Jesus Christ. The combination of the pandemic’s power in our lives, and our separation from our worshiping communities, means that we now have a crisis. And if that’s true, the spiritual effects of this reality may well be disastrous.
I have said elsewhere that live-streaming liturgies is a good thing, and that people can be encouraged to make an act of spiritual communion, asking the Lord to receive the benefits of the Eucharist even though they cannot receive sacramentally. I stand by that. But I also don’t think that spiritual communion is the solution to this crisis, at least in any long-term way. It’s a temporary one, and it was useful before we slowly began to realize that this might be more than just a problem of a few weeks or months. Another idea that is definitely not a long-term solution is simply to substitute Morning Prayer for the Mass. The Office and the Mass are two distinct kind of liturgies: in the Office, we pray the text of the Bible, saturate ourselves in it, and listen for the voice of God, knowing that we will encounter the Lord if the Word of the Lord is on our lips and in our hearts. But the Eucharist is a distinct kind of ritual action, the other lung of the church’s public worship, we might say.
The key question, then, is this: what makes the Eucharist distinctive, and thus what is lost when Christians are separated from it? I begin my practical liturgy class with the following claim: Everything flows from a proper understanding of what it is that Christians do when they gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the Eucharist.
There’s been an unfortunate tendency among Western Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who regularly celebrate the Eucharist and speak about it as the Body and Blood of Christ to think about the Eucharist primarily as something that we get. To think about it as producing or confecting or consecrating the thing we want. What gets lost in all this is that the Eucharist is first and foremost an act of worship. A very particular form of worship.
The answer that I give to my question is this: the Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship (as the prayer book says) because it is the most praiseworthy action that we can do when we gather “on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, 14). From the beginning, Christians understood themselves, as a religion with a cultus. In other words, they were a religion marked by a particular kind of shared ritual life. The loss of the Second Temple in AD 70 presented an existential and practical crisis for Judaism: What did it mean to be a Jew without the Temple? Judaism had to adapt in dramatic ways. Guy Strousma, one of the great scholars of this period, makes a striking claim: in a period when Greek cults are beginning to lose their power, and when the temple cult is wrested violently from the hands of the Jews, Christianity takes up the torch of sacrifice.
This might seem like a totally bizarre claim at first, but consider the first chapter of Alexander Schmemann’s classic, For the Life of the World, where he explains that God made the human creature first as a priest, which is placed in a garden of creation, depicted in Genesis with intentional parallels to the tabernacle and the temple. What does a priest do? A priest offers sacrifices. What is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is the offering to God of what the creature understands to be a gift from God (Aquinas argues in a very similar way, I should add). This offering is made as a way of acknowledging that God is not like me at all, but is in fact God — That from whom all things flow. Viewed in this way, sacrifice is the most fundamental, the most primordial expression of praise to the God of the universe.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice not because it involves the death of Jesus — though it certainly is a sacrament of his death. The Eucharist is a sacrifice not because we lose anything in the process — in fact, just the opposite, even though we offer everything to God in the Eucharist:
- bread and wine, as symbols of all of creation;
- our selves — our souls and bodies — as St. Paul enjoins us in Romans 12:1, as living and spiritual sacrifices;
- and finally, our verbal praise and thanksgiving.
Thus, we offer God that which he first gave to us, namely, everything. In the eucharistic action, we ask the Father to make our sacrifice one with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ which, as Chrysostom reminds us, is inexhaustible. It is that sacrifice that Jesus still pleads on our behalf as our great high priest and mediator in the heavenly temple. And it is only when our sacrifice is united with that of Christ that our sacrifice is acceptable and pleasing to the Father.
Answering this petition, God returns our offering (which was already his gift to us). He offers it back to us as that which we need the most: Jesus himself. And we, in turn, are to offer ourselves back to God in our living and in our dying, to be the Body of Christ that we have received, and to show forth in our lives what we have received on our lips.
If what I have just described is the right answer to the question, “What is the Eucharist?,” then our separation from the action of the Eucharist is a crisis for the individual Christian, no less than for the whole Body of Christ. If this description of the Eucharist is correct, it means that when Christians are excluded from the Eucharist, they are excluded from the action that makes them truly human and fully alive. They can’t be the priests that God has made them to be. If the Eucharist is not even being celebrated, God is not being worshiped with the kind of fullness that he desires from his Church.
And if David Foster Wallace is right that we’re all going to worship something, and most of us aren’t even aware of the water in which we’re swimming, then it is almost certainly true that we’re all becoming idolaters and we don’t even know it. Most of us find it terribly difficult to worship God on our own. The Daily Office can easily be prayed on its own. But without the Eucharist, the Church is not fully the Church. Without the Eucharist, the Christian will begin to wither as we begin to worship other gods: the thrill of the news cycle; the goddess Netflix; the shallow picture of the human being that we see on YouTube.
At least one question that God is asking us in this pandemic can be found in Psalm 4:
How long will you dishonor my glory?
how long will you worship dumb idols
and run after false gods?” (Ps 4:2)
This is the crisis: the loss of sacrifice and its replacement with idolatry. The Church needs not only to face this, but to come up with credible and doable solutions. The Psalm is clear that part of the solution is to “offer the appointed sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord” (Ps 4:5). We must figure out how to make participation in the Eucharist possible and safe, beyond drive-up, fast-food style Communion. Our bodies need to engage in the Eucharist, not just receive it.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.