A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany in the midst of a pandemic.
When I was a young child, I took myself off to church. At first, it was the words that drew me in: bible stories, prayers, especially the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, even songs and hymns told their own stories and painted pictures of God and of the kingdom to come, the will that might one day be done on earth as in heaven.
I liked what I heard, so different from the day-to-day injustices of life: the mercy of God so removed from the images on the 6 o’clock news; the dignity of being made in the image of God, although I didn’t yet have those words, nor words to describe the concept of Christ’s Incarnation, hallowing our flesh by inhabiting it.
But I knew that there was something there that I badly wanted. I took myself to church to find it.
What I found was more words – the beauty of Cranmer’s poetry barely translated into twentieth-century English for a Welsh church; but beyond their murmurs I saw the mystery enacted at the altar, the bread and the wine that were transformed somehow into the Body and Blood of Christ, and offered among the people who reverently approached – but not to me. I was too young and unconfirmed (in those days that was the gateway to full Communion). I relished the blessing that Dilwyn or one of the curates would press upon my head, but I wanted that Bread badly.
A small confession: in my childish judgement I thought it a little unfair that I should be required to repeat the words of the postcommunion prayer, offering thanks for the spiritual food which had been physically withheld from me. I said them anyway; I understood on some level that I had become a member of the mystical body of Christ, that I had my part in the mystery that had been performed that morning, and that I was not unchanged by it – far from it. No one had explained to me the idea of spiritual Communion, but something in my spirit resonated with it.
Even if I could not yet receive the Bread and the Wine bodily, it was important beyond measure that they were consecrated, and that others, some-bodies, shared them on my behalf and enfolded me in their mysteries.
I share this with you because, to state the obvious, we are in a season when our bodily relationship with the Eucharist is altered. There are indicators such as the change from proper bread to wafers, and the inclusion of the prayer for spiritual Communion in our order of service. Then there is the Cup.
I long for the days when we can share the Cup among us. Every time I pray the words of Jesus, “Drink this all of you,” I feel that childish pang, knowing that I will consume the wine, the Blood of Christ, on behalf of and in the midst of us all. I find a gap between the words and the actions of the liturgy.
Sometimes a gap is the space we need for reflection, for diving more deeply into the mystery of what God is doing with us in these sacramental moments.
Practically, there have always been times when Communion is more appropriately offered in one kind. A person who cannot swallow solid food might receive a drop of wine offered on a spoon with gratitude. A person in recovery or on medication or in fear of giving or receiving contagion might find that sipping from the shared Cup risks their physical and spiritual safety. Not to mention the opportunities for spreading germs that introducing multiple handfuls of bread into a common Cup presents.
In the middle of a pandemic, we are all at risk. It seems prudent, therefore, to resume the admittedly medieval practice of reserving the Cup to one person, who consumes it on behalf of the assembled body, and distributing the Real Presence of Jesus by means of the Bread alone, and by spiritual Communion for those at even greater risk.
This does not mean that we are not sorry to have to abstain, if only for a season, from some familiar and comforting practices. In the meantime, you have heard me say time and again that Christ is fully present in either form, and that we lose nothing of his grace by receiving him in one form or the other, nor by making our spiritual Communion as we have need. God is not constrained by our rituals, but allows us to approach heaven by means of them. The doorway to grace that is opened by the Eucharist opens towards us, and not by our hands.
And when we approach it, with trembling hearts and outstretched hands, we do so not only on our own behalf, but aware of the whole world for which Christ offered himself. Nothing we do as Christians, as followers of Jesus’s example, is for ourselves alone. So when we come to Communion, we do so on behalf of the sinful, the needy, the joyous, and the proud; we do so in humility, loving God and loving our neighbour enough to do it for them; we do so as that church family back in Wales did for the young girl who was not yet allowed or able to do so herself.
Odo Casel, a German theologian of a century or so ago, wrote that,
When the Church performs her exterior rites, Christ is inwardly at work in them; thus what the church does is truly mystery … The deepest ground for it lies in the fact … that Christ has given the mysteries to his Church … The content, and so the essential form of the mysteries have been instituted and commanded by our Lord himself; he has entrusted their performance to the Church, but not laid down to the last detail what is necessary or desirable for a communal celebration. By leaving the Spirit to his Church, he has given her the ability as well, to mint inexhaustible treasure from the mystery entrusted to her, to develop it and to display it to her children in ever new words and gestures.[i]
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is mystery, entrusted to us to develop and to display to the children of God as we are enabled by the Spirit, ancient as days, and new for every season.
In every season, this is inexhaustible treasure.
[i] Odo Casel, Mystery and Liturgy, part iii, ch. 2, “The Mystery of Worship in the Christian Cosmos,” excerpted in Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology: A Reader, Dwight W. Vogel, editor (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 2000), 31
I was so relieved to rediscover this ancient practice when the pandemic began. We’re tentatively back to a more usual celebration with bread and wine, but its possible we may have to go back to our previous pandemic practice. I’m glad the theology of spiritual communion can help get us through.