written by Michael Hunn
Much has been said and written about how to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic with respect to the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps we should be fasting from the Eucharist because we are not able to gather physically in our churches. Two things concern me about this line of thinking— and to address them we need to speak theologically about the nature of fasting, what it is and why we do it, and about the nature of Eucharist in the same terms.
First and foremost, The Holy Eucharist is a gift from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. From that night in the upper room until today faithful Christians have consistently celebrated Eucharist in times of war, in times of famine, in times of disease. The celebration of the Eucharist never includes the entire membership of the church and yet it always includes the entirety of the Communion of the Saints. Every single celebration of the Eucharist is done, not only for the sanctity of those who are physically present, but for the saving of the entire world. The Church does not ordain people because we need community organizers who gather people together. We ordain priests to preside at the liturgy and to teach the faith. We ordain deacons so the church will continue to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Clergy are called by the community to fulfill important sacramental functions. The church needs it’s clergy to continue doing what the church has called us to do and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist the primary work of every priest and every bishop.
I hear clergy from across the church concerned that celebrating the Eucharist without everyone physically present is somehow inhospitable or unwelcoming.
I agree that we need to be hospitable, however, we need to remember that Christ is the host of the Holy Eucharist. Christ invites us to the table. Christ doesn’t wait for us to gather before extending the invitation. We are not the ones acting here. We are responding to the action of God. It is not our hospitality which is being shared at the altar of God. The hospitality of the church is the consequence of the Holy Eucharist not its cause.
In the Eucharist Christ is giving us the food and drink which we need to live. Christ is offering himself, suffering with those who suffer, and inviting us to walk with him through the grave to eternal life. This is what the Eucharist is all about, and it is what the Eucharist does for and to us. The Eucharist makes us the body of Christ, our gathering does not make Eucharist.
Christ is still inviting us to the Holy Eucharist, and we clergy, the servants of Christ, the handmaidens at the table, must do our duty to show up for work on behalf of Christ serving the people of God by celebrating the Eucharist which always and everywhere includes the entire world. Christ’s embrace is always that wide. Even if the vast majority of Christian people must refrain from gathering physically – as I believe we should right now – the Church must not decline the invitation of Christ by stopping the regular celebration of the Eucharist.
The Church must keep the feast … but how? As we always have done. Every celebration of the Eucharist is physically incomplete – there is never perfect attendance. Still, we must remember that every celebration of the Holy Eucharist is spiritually complete. Furthermore the Eucharist is fundamentally inclusive of the whole of creation. It is offered for, and thereby, includes everyone. There has never been any quorum larger than two required for the Eucharist to be celebrated— where two or three are gathered the fullness of the body of Christ is made manifest, a fullness that always includes those who are not physically present.
This present situation, where many are not able to be in church on Sunday is not unprecedented, and we already have the theology we need in order to face this crisis.
This moment, when many are dying and we are all afraid, is precisely when the people of God need the Eucharist to be celebrated. Easter needs to happen. And if people are not able to be physically in the church, they are comforted and strengthened by being able to open a link and see the celebration of the Easter Feast in their churches. In classic Anglican fashion we need not split hairs about exactly what sort of participation this amounts to. We can agree that the people are gathered, that Christ is present, and that we have the blessed assurance that Christ our Passover is still, always and at all times, sacrificed for us. If most of us are prevented by this disease from all physically gathering, it is all the more important for the people to know and to see that their priest and at least one other person are there keeping the feast of Christ which includes us all. And those few physically present should receive the sacrament physically – while observing appropriate safety measures.
And now for the second concern: This talk of fasting from the Eucharist speaks about fasting in a way that I don’t understand. We fast from luxury, we fast by depriving ourselves of the things we don’t actually need in order to draw close to the God who we do actually need. We fast in solidarity with the poor, to become more aware of our neediness. We fast in penance for sin. We repent give to those in need by fasting.
We don’t fast from prayer, we don’t fast from church, we don’t fast from the Eucharist. These things are the very air we faithful people need to keep living the resurrected life.
I would even go so far to say that in this Coronavirus era we are not fasting from gathering— we may not be gathering physically, but we are gathering, and not only online. The church is spiritually gathered together in worship as we take up our Books of Common Prayer and lift up our hearts. The Church never closes. The doors of our buildings may be shut but behold the vibrant ministry of the church all around us!
We must keep being the Church especially because it is now clear that there will not be a single day when, all of a sudden, all of the restrictions are lifted and our entire congregations once again gather as if it were Easter Sunday. What is far more likely to happen is that the restrictions will be lifted in one place, then another, and then in another. Our congregations will each decide whether, when, and how they want to gather again physically. Without a vaccine or therapeutic treatment that ensures survival for the infected, I think many of our parishioners will be understandably reluctant to join gatherings even at the church. What this means practically is that the church must continue to celebrate the Eucharist as we always have done. We can’t be stuck in the weeds about whether or not a person actually receives the Eucharist by watching it on a screen. We certainly do not need to begin practicing consecration by video, but we can’t stop Eucharist until some unspecified number can gather together. We can, however, be certain that we are all included in the communion of saints which gathers around the altar without any fear of the coronavirus every single time two or three gather to celebrate the Holy Eucharist anywhere in the world.
To be clear, I think there are a variety of faithful responses to this epidemic. In our dioceses some congregations are celebrating morning prayer, others are celebrating the Eucharist with one or two people, others are having more intimate Bible study together— all are being the Church. This beautiful diversity is a sign of the glory of God in our midst.
I want to encourage an understanding of the Eucharist which has been long upheld in the Christian tradition. I want to encourage a particular view of fasting that sees it as a spiritual discipline that focuses our attention on the true bread of life rather than the things which don’t give life.
The celebration of the Church is what makes us the Church—the work of the people is our primary work. And we are all doing the best we can right now. If the Coronavirus, or a world war, or any other awful thing can stop the church from doing what Christ commanded us to do the entire world is in trouble.
Michael B Hunn is the Bishop of the Diocese the Rio Grande in New Mexico and far West Texas. A writer, preacher and public speaker, filmmaker and host of the podcast The Simply Christian Life https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/simply-christian-life/id1454982429 his work is on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/bishopmichaelhunn/, YouTube https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCbMFYLongi5sMlitOJ4kSHQ and at dioceserg.org. He lives with his family in a permaculture orchard outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.