A number of pastors and priests have been struggling with the problem of administering Holy Communion at a time when we can’t physically commune. As so often happens, it is a crisis which provides a chance to explore something more deeply which we tend to take for granted.
Is virtual communion an oxymoron? Doesn’t communion mean being in physical fellowship.
Our struggles over whether virtual communion is legitimate or even possible can bring out the liturgical fundamentalist in even the most open-minded. Our struggles are somewhat reminiscent of those violent arguments that broke out in the sixteenth century between proponents of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and between those who believed that the Lord’s Supper was just a memorial meal, and those who believed that in communion Christ is with us, nourishing us spiritually (and, “mystically,” to use John Calvin’s word).*
It is sad that the event that was intended to draw all of us together in Christ has divided Christian sects from one another for centuries. The concern has always been, essentially, how do we know we’re rightly doing what Jesus told us to do.
On Maundy Thursday, Debbie and I communed “virtually” with our congregation in New Orleans and with our son’s congregation in Westfield, New Jersey. It was comforting to know that our Reformed tradition teaches that we are free to use whatever common elements are at hand to participate in Holy Communion. A member of our son’s church shared on Facebook that she was using V8 Juice and cheese doodles because that’s all she had in the house. But watching and listening to Sarah and Jeremy both presiding, one in our sanctuary, the other at his family’s dining table, something else struck me: That which we are eating and drinking and being nourished by is and always has been the Word of God in and by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
There is a long tradition in Judaism to combine the children’s learning of the Torah with the sweet taste of honey. Sometimes a teacher might place a drop of honey on the child’s tongue when he learned a passage. In some old European settings, the teacher would actually place a tiny drop of honey on the words of the Torah themselves so the child could taste and associate God’s Word with sweetness. The first time I heard of these faith practices, I thought of the biblical passage: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps. 34:8)
Often when I step to the communion table in our sanctuary, those words are in my mind: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” As the ancient Eucharistic liturgy is enacted, as the prayers of thanksgiving (from which Eucharist takes its name in Greek), intercession and consecration are offered, and the words of institution are spoken and heard, already we are feasting on Jesus Christ before a morsel of bread or a drop of wine has passed our lips, already we are drawn and knitted together, not by our physical proximity, but by the gracious Spirit of God who makes us one in Christ.
My point is simple, and maybe I should have stated it to begin with. The word “virtual” means “almost or seemingly real,” “nearly, but not completely, as described.” In that case, “virtual” communion is not at all what we are doing in this time of social distancing, and isolation, and quarantine.
The Communion we are celebrating isn’t virtual at all, it is real, because it is on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ our Lord that we are feeding together through God’s Spirit.
*I mean “violently” in a literal sense. For example: One of our greatest confessions, “The Heidelberg Catechism,” was prompted in part because the Calvinist pastor and the Lutheran pastor who co-presided over a church in the Palatinate region of Europe got into a fist fight (really!) right in the middle of the Lord’s Supper. Church leadership in the Lutheran and Reformed communities agreed that this is unseemly.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church