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.
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).