Bishop Duncan-Probe of the Diocese of Central New York has asked us to suspend in-person worship after services yesterday (March 15, Third Sunday in Lent). As I stood at the altar giving voice to the eucharistic prayers of our little congregation, I caught my breath a couple of times, thinking this would be the last time we would break bread together for who knows how long.
I caught my breath again when I cleared the altar and handed the ‘stack’ back to the Worship Leader. I, and others, lingered til the bitter end of coffee hour, knowing it might be some time before we gather again. Much has been written in the last four decades (since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came into use) about the corporate nature of the eucharist. I’ve written a lot of it myself. This suspension has brought that corporate reality home to me in ways I could not have anticipated.
Granted, I’m a priest, someone paid to prepare sermons and lead worship, but I had a sudden insight into the extent to which we Christians organize our lives around the eucharist. I’m not reading scripture this morning with an eye to choosing hymns — and it feels odd. I will miss Tuesday bible study and contemplative eucharist, digging into what the scriptures might mean to us today, and how God might be revealed in our common life. The whole thing leaves me at sixes and sevens.
Many of the folks at Church on Sunday were feeling the same way: Now, what do we do? Not just, what do we do to fill the time now that we can’t go to plays and concerts and restaurants, but what do we do without church? Sure, I’ll figure out a way to live stream morning prayer (can’t do eucharist over the internet), and sort of preach a sermon on Sunday, but, damn it, we are the Body of Christ. How can we be the Body of Christ scattered about in our living rooms?
The House of Bishops has worried that we have not fully lived into the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 BCP. Maybe we have, and we just haven’t succeeded in articulating just what is different. I think this hiatus in corporate worship is going to prove to us that at some fundamental level, deep in the fiber of our being, we understand that we are the Body. It has been 24 hours, and already we are hungering and thirsting for that reality.
Paul believed that the Church was the new humanity, restored to God’s intentions and the ‘down payment’ for the restoration of the cosmos. I shudder to think of all the consequences of this ‘social distancing.’ Musicians’ gigs get canceled. Kids not in school don’t get the lunches they depend on. Small businesses go bankrupt. The dominoes have not yet begun to fall.
And in the midst of all this chaos, what we long for is connection. This is the church’s gospel. In Jesus Christ, we are connected to God and to each other. That is the heart of baptism. That is what eucharist embodies every week. I think that is what Paul means by ‘a righteousness based in Christ’ — a belonging given freely by God’s redemptive act in the incarnation, death, resurrection of Jesus. All other forms of belonging have to be earned, and they all – in the end- fail.
This virus is going to show us just how interconnected we are, and how badly we are capable of screwing up those connections. I hope that we will be graceful to one another during this time (I mean, who needs that much toilet paper, anyway?).
There is a little comfort buried deep in the rubrics of the Prayer Book, in the service for the Ministration to the Sick (and the whole body politic is sick at the moment): “If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.” (BCP, p. 457). Let us treasure the Body and Blood in our hearts and share them liberally with one another during this time.