Posted by: dacalu | 9 April 2020

Fasting in Earnest

“This is not the fast we chose, but it is the fast we’ve been given.” So said my pastor last Sunday while explaining changes in our common life. Covid-19 has forced us to think deeply about communion. Individual pastors, congregations, and denominations are debating whether to continue with a weekly Eucharist, whether to meet, and whether to celebrate a “virtual” communion online. I believe that physical contact is central to Christian faith and worship. I believe that God feeds us, in symbol and in truth though physically sharing bread and wine. Social distancing gives us a chance to fast and appreciate the real value of the meal.

Three dangerous arguments have arisen during social distancing. Some argue that physical communion is so important that we should ignore public health directives and gather anyway. They have been on the decline as the seriousness of Covid-19 becomes apparent, but they make an important argument for tangible community. Others argue that we should move communion online, sharing a meal in a new way. They claim that digital communion is still sacramental. Still others call for a performative communion, with an onscreen priest celebrating on behalf of the community. I believe we are called to another path, to affirm the tangible grace of Jesus’ body and blood, but abstain for a season. Our act is voluntary and temporary, and it witnesses to the greater truth.

The body and blood of Christ are present in communion, in symbol and in truth. I cannot commit to Transubstantiation or Memorialism, but I do think we should remember Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection – in a weekly meal, in tangible bread, blessed, broken, shared, and eaten. We meet God in the flesh; we find grace in our bodies; and we share grace in bread and wine. The physical nature of it is not accidental.

So, I take the weekly observance very seriously. We celebrate the resurrection by gathering with saints, past and present. We share food, eating with high and low, weak and strong, near and far. No matter how we fall apart, we hold together in this concrete action. It is never abstract. It is never just a metaphor. It is visceral incorporation into the very Body of Christ.

Coronavirus has not robbed of us this gift. Christians fear neither pestilence nor death. We have reached out to the sick, in symbol and in truth. For two thousand years, we celebrated communion, knowing we may be killed by tyrants, from Roman Emperors to Soviet Dictators. For two thousand years, we have shared food and drink with the sick, entering quarantine zones and sharing a kiss of peace with plague victims.

Many “shelter in place” for fear of sickness and death. Christians have another reason. We will enter quarantine, trusting in God, but we must not leave quarantine. Currently, we cannot care for the sick without spreading the virus. When we know more about Covid-19, we will be able to say who has it and who does not. We will be able to go from victim to victim and care for them, though our life may be at stake. For now, we cannot separate the infected from the uninfected. Nor can we tell whether an infection can reoccur. We separate ourselves, lest our good intentions pave the way to a quicker spread and more death. We flatten the curve for the health of the world. We self-isolate with faith in our public health system, with hope for the future, and with love for those who cannot choose their surroundings.

Governments cannot keep us apart. Sickness cannot keep us apart. Our conscience can. We willfully wait, knowing our joy will be greater when the time comes. We trust to the knowledge and wisdom God has given us. This season of isolation will come to an end. Restrictions will weaken in three to six months as the rate of spread becomes clear. Restrictions will go away in six to eighteen months as we develop efficient testing and vaccines. Aware of the suffering involved, aware of the hunger pains, we wait out of love for one another and for the world that God has made.

In the meantime, we meet online. We have virtual worship services, raising questions about how we worship and who we are in our physical separation. Some have argued Jesus’ body and blood can bridge the gap between us. We need not fast for we can share a virtual communion.

I am sympathetic, because I feel the hunger and need. I want desperately to join my sisters and brothers at God’s table. But I cannot agree. Christ is present in symbol and in truth. And because he is true food, we must take care lest we miss the significance of incarnation and embodiment, lest we lose the tangibility of grace.

Christ is grace incarnate. It would be easy to starve our faith of material elements, so that it becomes intention without action, idea without substance, faith without works. The Kingdom is at hand or it has no power worth mentioning. There is grace to be had in meeting online. Such meetings can be sacramental, but they are not the Sacrament of Communion. Sacraments of that sort are concrete, immediate, and tangible, just as Jesus was concrete, immediate, and tangible. If we thought our solitude would last, perhaps the answer would be different. Alone on a dessert island, under lifetime quarantine, or sailing through space I might consider virtual communion, though even then I would pause. I might be willing to give up one good for the sake of another. But this is not the case. We can remember being fed. And we can wait with eager longing for our fast to end.

The Sunday feast is not, and never has been, the only means of grace; the local pastor is not, and never has been, the sole focus of our faith; Christ is. Now is the time to ask what other acts we may perform, what other gifts we can celebrate. The loss of food reminds us to look for Jesus throughout our lives, to give thanks whenever two or three gather together in his name, to share the food we have. All our actions can be colored by the absence of communion. And, in the fullness of time, we can celebrate with a deeper knowledge of the life we share.

We can make the sacrifice without denying that it is a real sacrifice, in symbol and in truth. We can give up sharing Christ’s body and blood for this season of sickness and uncertainty. We respect our current bodily need, neither sharing physical food nor gathering in person. This restraint saves lives. At the same time, we witness to Jesus as the true food, real and physical. We recall an eternal spiritual hunger. Fasting can be right and good and a joyful thing.

I reject the either/or thinking that says we must choose between metaphysics and pastoral care. All theology should be both. Our metaphysics has consequences. Our short-term needs shape our long-term health. Though painful and dangerous, the coronavirus gives us this chance to bring action and introspection together, to think about how metaphysics matters. The gospel claims that we are spiritual bodies and that true salvation can be found where breath becomes flesh.

To equate online communion with in-person communion – virtual with visceral, technological with tactile – is to deny the physical nature of grace. It is not simply a pastoral move; it is a metaphysical claim of the first order. And it would profoundly change our theology. I believe that fasting is the better choice. We can, as always, eat and pray together in groups of two or more. We can, as always, worship online. But the true feast of the resurrection must wait. Communion should be nothing less than tangible grace for the sake of the whole world.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” I Corinthians 11:33-34


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