I can think of few better ways to start this post than with the immortal words of The Dude:
This is a complex issue and there is no way that I will be able to capture every facet of this topic in a holistic way. It’s too broad, and there are too many different views. I do want to compile some of the things I’ve read about it, and share my opinion.
I want to start by acknowledging my location in this post. I’m writing this from my perspective within the ELCA. Eucharistic piety is diverse in the church universal, and even in the ELCA in particular. I am writing from my understanding and expression of Lutheran sacramental Christianity. I also am locating myself as a white, suburban-dwelling resident of the U.S. I think that influences my thinking compared to others in other locations.
I also want to echo something Richard Rohr said in a recent devotion: “our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge is fully face-to-face. God is always and forever Mystery.” We can grasp at what God is doing for us in the Eucharist, but our understanding of it is indirect at best. We can say it is a means of grace, and leave it at that.
There are many reasons for and reasons against having the Eucharist in a virtual environment (the Serrano brothers cover a lot of this):
- Pros: people need communion now more than ever; this is an emergency; God’s presence is everywhere; the Spirit can work through any medium including digital; people are dying, this may be the last time they are able to commune; and many more reasons.
- Cons: online gatherings are not real gatherings; we don’t have control over what people do with it; what kind of precedent does this set for the future; if you can commune yourself at home online, why would people come back to church; and many more reasons.
I think some of the quickness to jump completely into virtual Eucharist is based on fear of the future. We have articles telling us that nothing is ever going back to normal. That every organization is effectively a start up now. If this were true, then we have to re-evaluate everything that we do, including the sacraments. But is it true? Does everything have to be adapted?
Regarding the Lutheran Confessions, it is hard not to scratch your head while observing the Eucharist being celebrated in an empty room, with no one to administer the body and blood to. Isn’t this, the offering of private masses, exactly what Luther railed against as an abuse of the church (Augsburg Confession, 24)? How have we so quickly thrown out 500 years of Lutheran theology?
On the other hand: “For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel…” (Augsburg Confession, 5.2). Maybe virtual Eucharist pleases God? Maybe God can effect faith through it, whenever and wherever God pleases?
But then again: “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (Augsburg Confession, 7.1). Is online worship an assembly? Aren’t we missing the tangible, physical people? That is the very heart of Eucharist: an incarnational reality of Jesus being really present. Jesus didn’t become virtually present at his birth. He was real, enfleshed. If we are not present and embodied to one another, can Jesus be present and embodied?
Deanna Thompson would suggest the answer is yes. She states that we have to look no further than the cross to find God in unexpected places. “At a time when physical contact is so limited, communing together virtually with our faith communities can affirm the reality that our bodies are engaged in worship even when we’re participating from our living room, that we’re still connected to the other bodies gathered virtually for worship even when we can only see photos of them online, and that Christ comes to us in the gifts of bread and wine even when our pastors’ Words of Institution are mediated by a screen.”
While the focus is primarily on the Words of Institution, let’s not forget the epiclesis. It is a common misunderstanding that the epiclesis is a prayer of invocation for the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine during Eucharist. But the Spirit is being invoked on more than just the elements. Of the 10 options for Prayers of Thanksgiving at the Table given in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 9 of them ask for the Spirit to be poured out upon the people, not just the bread and wine. The words spoken at Eucharist make not only the bread and wine special, but the people special.
Maybe the format matters as well. Prof. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero points out the differences between livestreaming and web conferencing: “The livestreaming approach is unidirectional, which is how one currently watches television and YouTube. The broadcaster creates the material, and those who watch consume the material. Participation at best is passive and could be analogous to a pre-Reformation understanding of the mass. The main role of the worshiper is to watch at the important moments, while simultaneously engaging in their own devotional practices. The web conferencing approach is bidirectional and multidirectional. It allows for both proclamation and response through the same online tool, which is not the case with livestreaming. The ‘congregation’ is part of the interactivity just as the worship leaders. This better simulates the dialogical nature of Lutheran worship.”
Tim Wengert has pointed out that although we are accustomed to receiving the Eucharist every week, “there is no magic number of times to celebrate.” He also reminds us that, “the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it.”
There’s also a justice component to all this. The church in Corinth was critiqued for not being present to one another, not waiting for one another. Is virtual Eucharist a same kind of not waiting on one another? In our synod, Bishop Mike Rinehart said: “If you choose online consecration over the internet, you may exclude those who don’t own computers or who aren’t online for financial or other reasons. If you offer for some, you should offer for all.”
Prof. Benjamin Stewart also tweeted this:
From Thomas Schattauer at Wartburg: “From my perspective, the kind of virtual celebration of the eucharist that some are commending—virtual consecration and private reception—and various other forms of eucharistic celebration at a distance are not to be encouraged. These practices, which take place apart from an assembly gathered in place, tend to reinforce clericalized understandings of the sacrament as a kind of magic (with the Words of institution as magic words) and the individualism of much contemporary life. My own deep conviction is that the eucharist is fundamentally an action of God within a locally gathered assembly of persons present to one another….”
Craig Nessan said, “it is not only bread and wine in accord with the Words of Institution that belong to the Lord’s Supper but also an ‘assembly.’ At best a virtual Eucharist remains an approximation of that meal in Jesus’ name which occurs in a place where the assembly is gathered.” He also reminds us of our ecumenical partnerships: “What are the implications of the practice of virtual Eucharist for full communion within a denomination and for full communion within the universal body of Christ?”
It all seems to reveal that we’ve just discovered another way to divide ourselves at the table. Yet another unholy discovery over something that Jesus did to unite and remind the disciples. Are we still missing the point?
Bishop Jim Gonia may have said it best: “During a time of pandemic, there are a variety of faithful responses a faith community can choose with respect to the practice of Holy Communion. Each of these pathways presents both challenges and opportunities. None is perfect. Some are more commendable than others.” We don’t need to divide ourselves over this if there is more than one way to be faithful. Context matters. Pastors and lay leadership need to decide together what is best for their context.
Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson reminds us the Eucharist has always been a virtual gathering as the communion of saints. “Like the altar, this virtual table we are now setting is a different kind of table where everyone gathered is invited to bring parts of themselves as well as the rich history handed to us from saints who have come before us. When we bring all our pieces together, holy ground is created. Community is present. God is present.”
In the end, I would agree with the ELCA’s request to fast from virtual Eucharist, and to shift to an extended “teaching moment about the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God, and that we make use of the Service of the Word and Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer and Responsive Prayer. Let us spend time in scripture study, pray for each other, and contact others regularly by phone, email or social media.”
At the same time, I believe as Luther did that parents are the pastors of their home. To that end, I think another solution would be to tell families that if they feel led to celebrate Eucharist at home, to do it around the dinner table before/after a meal. Share the homebound communion liturgy with them and let the parents pastor their home.
And I also wonder about Luther’s words in the Small Catechism on The Sacrament of the Altar: “How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing? Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sin.'”
Perhaps hearing “for you,” eating, and drinking are enough?