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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Daniel

Holy Eucharist Live

Writing in the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas, the great doctor of the Church, says that, “the Eucharist is the summit of the spiritual life, and the goal of all the sacraments.”[1] This faithful understanding has been a steady guide for the Church throughout history in our understanding of the Incarnation and how we are to be present with Christ in the world. And it has enabled us to bear witness, through our life and worship as the Body of Christ, to the mystery of God with us.

Today we are faced with a new and timely, theological challenge. Resurrection Sunday is upon us and there will be no Eucharist in our churches. And the difficulty is recognizing that this principle feast of the Church, the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection, is our commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, which comes into focus for us in the Great Thanksgiving of Holy Communion.

We are not arguing with one another about whether the first Eucharistic celebrations were on the eve of Sunday or Sunday morning, as in times past. Nor are we quarrelling over matters of how Jesus remains present through bread and wine. Is it the doctrine of Real Presence, Consubstantiation, Transubstantiation, Transmutation or some other obscure dogma meant to entice theologians and confound the laity? No, what concerns us today is whether we should livestream a celebration of Holy Eucharist, recognizing that this is the principle season of the Christian Calendar when Eucharist is to be celebrated, and what will now be our pastoral response on Easter to the realities of Covid-19 and our inability to gather together in the space of the church to celebrate this meal?

It is important to note that, while this is a pastoral matter, it is theologically significant for what Eucharist is and what it means for us to be the Body of Christ in the world.

The Eucharistic feast that Jesus brings into being with his disciples at the Last Supper in the Upper Room is, with regard to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, not a Passover meal, per se.[2] Scholars disagree on how the various Gospel accounts are to be interpreted, whether Jesus’ mention of eating the Passover meal was that he is acknowledging that this is the last time he will eat it or if he was referring to not being able to eat it with them.[3] However, what is clear, as Benedict XVI rightly describes, is that whether Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples in terms of the calendar day or preparation is not the important connection we are to make in what we read in the Gospels, nor understand about the Jewish Passover’s relation to Christian Eucharist. What it vital for us to grasp, as Paul conveys in his first letter to the Corinthians, is this: Christ is our Passover. And, we keep this feast, not simply so we do not forget that Jesus lived and died. This anamnesis—this not-forgetting—is a deifying grace, whereby we become bread, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5: “Purge away the old leaven, so that you might be a new batch, just as though you are unleavened. For indeed the Anointed, our Passover, has been sacrificed.”[4] But what follows next is key for Paul: “So let us keep the feasts not with the old leaven or with a leaven of evil and wickedness, but with the unleavened loaves of unmixed purity and of truth.”[5] For Paul, keeping the feast of Christ is never reducible to bread and wine. Keeping the feast is a matter of seeing what is visible through what is invisible. It is an awakenedness to the truth of Christ in the world, such that our whole orientation to God, the world, and each other is governed by a posture of self-offering and self-sacrifice that we become, with Christ, bread that satiates a much deeper, spiritual hunger, which is inseparable from our material cravings, yet transforms these into a higher sensibility of life that opens us to the truth of God with us.[6]

It is in this light that we are to understand every celebration of Holy Eucharist throughout the world. And the question our current circumstance poses, whether we should either risk exposure and gather anyway, or to livestream Holy Eucharist, so that the faithful can participate by watching the liturgical action from home, cuts to the heart of what we understand this celebration to be.

First, “gathering anyway” is tantamount to testing God, based on our own anxiety to keep this Feast Day as it has always been, which does not come from a heart of humility and, therefore, is easily dismissed as haphazard, having no attention to the real circumstances of our current situation. Faith and reason are inseparable.

Second, and more pressingly, celebrating Holy Eucharist without distributing it to be consumed by the whole of the gathered body, the Church, would be akin to the Israelites sacrificing lambs in Egypt at the first Passover without bothering to mark their homes with blood. To give thanks and break bread without distributing the body is to divide body from spirit. “It is the act of distributing that creates community.”[7] In other words, Communion without Communication reduces the sacrament to an idol. It sentimentalizes and trivializes the Paschal Mystery in such a way that we keep ourselves from the Sacrament of all Sacraments who is, as Ambrose proclaimed in the 4th Century, Jesus himself. The real sacrament is the person Jesus, who becomes the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, bearing life and fruit for all.[8] Jesus will go on to say that, “If anyone serves me let him follow me, and where I am there my servant will be as well.”[9] To feast on Christ is to feast on Christ at once by ingesting divinity through the Eucharist and to become Eucharist by presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, which, says Paul in his letter to the Romans, is the meaning of worship.[10]

If Jesus is the image of the invisible God,[11] and we, as so many great theologians have argued, are the image of the Image—Christ, then our sacramental mode of participation in Christ is a way of love irreducible to, even if inseparable from, the Eucharistic bread and wine and its celebration. Any anxiety we have about not receiving Eucharist on Easter Sunday or the Eucharist not being celebrated on Easter Sunday objectifies the sacrament in such a way divorces this feast from its church-making purpose in Christ. It separates the horizontal from the vertical, which God in Christ has inseparably linked.[12]

Our attention in this particular day and hour is, perhaps, best directed toward an understanding of human nature that runs seamlessly through the writings of the Church Fathers, bearing weight and wisdom for life in any age, and that is this: we are made in the image and likeness of God, as we read in the first book of Genesis;[13] the image is who we are at our core; the likeness is our capacity to make-manifest the image of God that we are, for the life of the world, to the glory of God. As Irenaeas said long ago, “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” To be fully alive is to become in likeness—in our way of life, an image of the Image we are. As St. Chysostom said, it is to become “little christs.”

Considering the Eucharistic celebration in its ontological place does not allow us to separate image from likeness. It does not permit us to divide body and soul, heart from mind, substance from accident, the flesh of Christ from the Body of the Church, or the gift of God from the offering of the faithful. And Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, only modestly embellished here with pastoral license, is important to remember: “When convening to eat, wait for each other.”[14]

God waits for us with “patience exquisite,” which, says Gerard Manley Hopkins, “plumes to Peace thereafter.”[15] And this peace, Hopkins continues, “comes with work to do, he does not come to coo, / He comes to brood and sit.”[16] Perhaps instead of worrying anxiously about livestreaming Holy Communion we might better make use of this newfound time so many of us have to become Eucharist, and to inhabit the Peace that gives patience exquisite, the peace that bears fruit as we open ourselves to the possibilities of communing with the Holy in our midst.

[1] Summa Theologiae III, q.73, a.3

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 114.

[3] Ibid., 113-114.

[4] 1 Cor. 5.7. All scripture references are from The New Testament, trans. David Bentley Hart (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[5] 1 Cor. 5.8.

[6] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality (Steubenville: Hildebrand Project, 2016), 63-78.

[7] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II, 131.

[8] John 12.24.

[9] John 12.26.

[10] Romans 12.1

[11] Colossians 1.15.

[12] Ratizinger, 131.

[13] Genesis 1.26-27.

[14] 1 Corinthians 11.33.

[15] Peace, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

[16] Ibid.

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