Eucharistic Living without the Eucharist

The COVID-19 crisis has posed a formidable challenge to the heart of Christianity. Assembling for the weekly Sunday Eucharist is a core value for the majority of Christians worldwide. The urgent need for social distancing to prevent spreading the virus necessitates cancelling Sunday gatherings that call for people to share food and fellowship, and touch one another in tight circles.

Frequent Communion & the Liturgical Movement

Regular participation in the Eucharist and active participation in the liturgy are hallmarks of the ecumenical liturgical movement. A handful of Christians remember the old days of going to Church, perhaps hearing a sermon and singing some hymns, and then going home with no communion. Communion was an annual affair, not a weekly experience.

The liturgical movement prompted Churches to move the Eucharistic pendulum and restore the practice of regular communion received at every Liturgy. For many, regular communion is a sine qua non of Christian life. I fondly recall an undergraduate student of mine from my early days of teaching at The Catholic University of America. He received communion at daily Mass without interruption, and stated that he couldn’t imagine living without it.

Henri de Lubac described the pendulum change as a movement from the Church making the Eucharist to the Eucharist making the Church.

In other words, the point of the liturgy was never to marvel at the miraculous transformation of bread and cup into the Lord’s body and blood. The liturgy’s point is for those who partake of communion to be transformed into a holy nation and royal priesthood.

COVID-19: A Liturgical Crisis

COVID-19 is causing an existential crisis among Christians worldwide. We are so dependent on our accessibility to communion that we can’t imagine life without it. Many of our Church leaders are struggling mightily to retain a minimalist Eucharistic life, with a handful of people gathering and interceding at the altar on behalf of all.

The ferocity to retain some quality of the Eucharistic ideal seems to indicate a movement of the pendulum from the Eucharist making the Church back to the Church making the Eucharist. If we cannot assemble for the supper the Lord’s commands us to observe, what is our purpose?

This indefinite period of time of fasting from the Eucharist creates an opportunity for living it out in witness and service in and to the world. The Eucharistic food we have been receiving regularly is preparing us for the next step – to live each day with thanksgiving, and to be thankful in service to our fellow human beings.

Eucharistic/Liturgical Beings

I introduce my students to a mosaic of modern Eastern Christian thinkers. St. Maria of Paris (Skobtsova) is among the most popular. Students certainly marvel at her courage in exchanging her life to save another, but her reception of the world as her Church and arena of ministry inspires them. St. Maria taught eloquently about living the sacrament of the brother and sister; she exemplified her model by pouring herself out in service to the general public – not behind the walls of a monastery, but in pubs and hostels, with and for whomever God brought to her. St. Maria exemplified the axiom of the Eucharist making the Church by interpreting that Eucharist as a command to live, witness, and serve all of humankind. Her contemporary Paul Evdokimov described the person living out the Eucharist as a liturgical being.

The question COVID-19 poses to us is – what are we fighting for? Are we fighting to defend our right to assemble as usual because we need the Eucharist? Or has the fight evolved, with god calling us to give up that which is most precious to us to serve humankind?

A Choice: The Cult or Service to the World?

Fr. Alexander Schmemann lamented the Church’s impoverished self-understanding as a “cultic society,” existing “one for the sake of the cult.” Schmemann bemoaned the Church’s inability to understand that the purpose of liturgy is to place the “Church before the face of the world.” He suggests that the Church can manifest “the love of God directed toward the world,” and says that our obsession with the cult results in a desire to depart from the world.

Schmemann’s prophetic words and St. Maria’s example suggest that we are on a precipice. We can limit our efforts to defending the requirements of the cult; or, we can become liturgical beings and live God’s liturgy in the world, for its life and healing. The moment of our choice has arrived; let us choose well.

(See A. Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, trans. Asheleigh E. Moorhouse (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), esp. p. 31).

4 comments

  1. Excellent, Nicholas. Picking up on your final segment about Schmemann’s, this is exactly what Pope Francis has been saying, in his own way, ever since he was elected pope. Perhaps people may now start to listen differently.

  2. I am one of those “Eucharistic beings”, having been nurtured with the Holy Eucharist each day in Catholic school in the mid 50’s-60’s. In public high school, I more often than not served daily Mass and was thus nourished. For all of the wrong reasons, I became a Lutheran and was mortified at the reality of receiving the Eucharist only every other weekend….why? I wondered.

    Fast forward to my becoming a Lutheran Passtor. In my first congregation I served as solo priest, I immediately established The Holy Eucharist at every Sunday Mass. Now retired, we found a parish where the Eucharist is offered each Sunday at the “contemporary service”, though it is sans vestments and a rather loose liturgical skeleton. I doubt I will ever vest in a chasuble again, as that is “too fancy” for these Lutherans.

    COVID-19 has introduced what I thought would be a Eucharistic fast enforced against our will by the government (I served in health care (emergency medicine) in my first career, so I understand the reasoning, though with a little less stridency.

    Yesterday, a friend whose parish I often substitute for him, invited my wife and me to do something I suggested: a small and informal gathering of less than 10 people sharing Holy Communion in an abreviated liturgy. Taste and see that the Lord is good! Thank you, Jesus! Everyone else is going to streaming their services. How long, O Lord? How long?

    I pray this pandemic’s “curve” is flattened soon so we may go back to our communities. I will likely make some shut-in visits (where they are not on lockdown) with the reserved sacrament this week.

  3. I agree that there exists a threat within the Christian faith to prioritize the wrong things and to focus on departing from this world, rather than to serve it. However, I disagree with your position that the Christian desire to receive the Holy Sacrament is simply a cultish instinct. Nor is it at odds with Christian service to the world. On the contrary, it is the very way by which we can serve it.

    I was intrigued by your move to site Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who I would assume would actually be the last person to support this time of “fasting from the eucharist,” as you say. My priest handed me For the Life of the World, another book by Fr. Schmemann, in which he both makes the point about cultishness AND emphasizes the importance of regular reception of the eucharist. I believe he would be appalled at the oxymoronic idea of “fasting from the eucharist” – for why do we fast but to turn our minds more frequently to him who is above our mind and understanding? What is “fasting from the eucharist” if not a declaration of pride, directed not toward Him but toward our own powers. It claims an independence from His own institution of the sacraments.

    With Fr. Schmemann, I believe you are asking the wrong question by setting at odds the reception of the eucharist with service to the world. How can we Christians serve the world and show her the Church, when we have been cut off from the very source of life? I do not believe that is a cultish instinct, but an essential part of the Christian faith, especially when it remains available.

    1. I sympathize with your statement on the Eucharist – and personally, I ache for it, too, as I had to withdraw from the community while recovering from surgery. Two more concrete responses. There is plenty of precedent for Lent as a noneucharistic season, from Palestinian hagiography to earlier Armenian practice, and even now, on Byzantine weekdays (the dominance of Palestinian practice over the Constantinopolitan practice). Schmemann writes about this as well. So there are historical patterns and examples that project a mimesis of Jesus’ sojourn into the desert without dependence on food, but solely on prayer. I find these useful in this time. And second, Schmemann, like many other theologians, seems to change his mind. He complains about the disintegration of the Eastern Church into a cultic society elsewhere. So, we agree to disagree, but I wish you peace, friend.

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