Drive-by communion

In this weird time, I’ve heard people asking about the possibility of drive-by communion, ya know, like Ashes to Go. Theologically, I have some real issues with the idea.

In the tenth century, a major shift took place in Latin Christendom. A ‘debate’ took place between Paschasius Radbertus and Ratramnus of Corbie. Up until that debate the phrase ‘corpus verum’ (the real body) referred to the Church, and the phrase ‘corpus mysticum’ (the mystical body) referred to the bread and wine of the eucharist. After that debate, those referents of those phrases switched: corpus verum began to refer to the bread of the eucharist (cf. the hymn ‘Ave verum corpus’ – a twelfth century hymn), and ‘corpus mysticum’ began to refer to the Church.

The switch never happened in the Eastern churches, but in the West, the switch began a fixation on the eucharistic species. At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Western Church promulagated the doctrine of transubstantiation: the bread and wine become in true substance the Body and Blood of Christ. The limitation of the valence of the signs of bread and wine to the natural body and blood of Christ (as borne by the Virgin, as the doctrine went) impoverished the Western Church.

No longer would the words of Augustine in Sermon 272 make the same sense that rang out when he preached them: See (on the altar) what you are; become what you see (with the ‘you’ in the plural). The Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council in response to that movement sought to recover that understanding of the Church as the ‘corpus verum.’ Of course, the Roman Catholic Church could not undo the decree of Lateran IV, so that switch is only partial.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the American Episcopal Church fully embodied (pun intended) the recovery of the understanding of the true Body as the Church and the mystical Body as the specie on the Altar. So, communion-to-go misses the point. The Oxford Movement, with its fascination with the middle ages, tried to recover the practice of eucharistic adoration, without a whole lot of success — because, when the Body of Jesus is locked up in the monstrance, it can’t be out there with the Church.

Cranmer sought in his own way to recover the earlier understanding. That’s why, in the Anglican communion, a priest cannot celebrate eucharist alone. The Body has to be present for the Body to be present. During this weird time, as much as we might like the comfort of receiving communion, it makes no sense to receive bread and wine without being in ‘communion.’ We are a people of the table, but eating alone is not a good substitute for sharing our meals together.

We will get very hungry for Jesus during this long Lent, but that is not a bad thing (talk about giving something up for Lent!). It will remind us that WE are the Body of Christ, given for the life of the world.

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