Spiritual Communion for Incarnational People:
A meditation by Mark Harris.
For at least 67 years I have been a regular communicant and participant in the Eucharist. It would have been longer but remember that we were all late bloomers then, the sacrament not being available until confirmation. I was taught then, and people are taught now, that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” (BCP, p.857). As such sacraments are, like Jesus Christ, incarnational. That is, they are the presence in the here-and-now of a grace that is not bound by time and space.
Thus baptism IS washing, even if it is with a small dash of water, and the Holy Communion IS eating, even if the bread and wine was insufficient even to feed a bird. And both the major sacraments are meant to be communal, involving as they do the “great cloud of witnesses” that include the church present in its congregations, as well as all those who will gather from all times and places at the end.
So what do we do when, as now, we are separated from one another, and where sharing common bread and wine is impossible?
Some have chosen to move to disciplined prayer which can be done without incarnational tools (bread and wine), and therefore quite easily can be a shared action of worship across distances where connection is by way of telephone, radio, television, or streaming on the internet on a computer or smart phone. Others have suggested that the Eucharist be celebrated and broadcast in the same way and that viewers or listeners participate in the prayers, knowing that they cannot receive because not present to do so. Most of the local options in this time of social distancing have been one or the other of these two choices.
Some, however (me among them) believe that the “outward and visible sign” need not be determinate for either baptism or Eucharistic communion.
In times of great social stress we know the church has held that there are those who are baptized by the spirit, but have not been physically baptized. We know that some of the unbaptized (and perhaps all of them, God being a God of justice and mercy both) possess the “inward and spiritual grace” to suffer a death like Christ so that they might also share in Christ’s glory. Baptism by fire, baptism by the Spirit, is the sacrament without the outward and visible sign associated with it.
I believe the same is true of communion. “Mystic sweet communion” is possible not only “with those whose rest is won” (The Hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”) but with those who are separated from us. Communion is an inward and spiritual grace, for which the bread and wind are the outward and visible signs. But Communion is not a product of sharing consecrated elements, but rather of sharing a mystical, spiritual communion with God, the people of God, past present and future, and indeed with all creation.
We are simple creatures, we incarnational people: We seem to work best at matters of faith when there are concrete connections between matters of fact and matters of grace. That is why I am so committed to incarnational living – to the expression in THIS world of matters that pertain to the life of inward and spiritual grace. When at all possible I want the Water to flow, the Bread to be broken, the Wine poured out. Those actions and the act of thanksgiving out of which they arise are central to my life as a Christian.
But when they are absent, I still believe (and maybe with greater faith) that the inward and spiritual grace is there, is real, and continues. For me my faith in the incarnation in Christ and the real presence of Christ in the sacramental elements are both a product of a spiritual reality. My faith is in the inward and spiritual grace of relationship with the One who both anoints and makes substantial the Divine presence in human form and in bread and wine. The outward signs are wonderful gifts of grace, but the grace prevails and is there always and everywhere.
So I believe that it is possible to participate fully in the Great Thanksgiving, in which we lift up, break, pour out and share the Gift of God’s presence in Christ, without being physically present in the community (ie. In the church) and even when not receiving the bread and wine as physical elements. I believe we need to practice such participation, hoping always that soon we will have it ‘easy’ again, by being together and holding the bread and cup.
At a time of separation we need to practice participation in the inward and spiritual grace without the gift of the outward and visible signs.
When we join the Eucharist broadcast on the web, rather than passively watching, we might enter into the prayers, imagining the presence of others with us – parish friends, loved ones who are absent or who have died, or even total strangers. In our imagination we might call forward the community of saints. It’s surprising who might show up! (Oddly, my father did last week, just for a short time.) We might make our prayers an occasion to invite others into our spiritual presence.
We are all, with the preacher, carriers of the Word.We are the sacramental (outward visible) sign of the inward spiritual grace that makes the sermon complete. So during the sermon we ought to invite the preacher into our hearts, and the preacher’s words into our prayerful presence.
In the prayer of the people, the silences if purposely held open (in spite of the norm not to have “dead” air space), and in the silence we can pray, being particularly conscious of that which links us to others from whom we are separated and isolated. The Prayers of the People gives us a real opportunity to be joined with people throughout the world in a profoundly spiritual unity. In the current situation, the prayers of the people are essential.
The Consecration Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, gives us a unique opportunity to enter into an inward and spiritual grace even as the bread and wine are consecrated in the context of a very small community gathered around the outward and visible sign.
I believe the place of contact between the “real” and the spiritual lies in our sense that the Sacrament of Holy Communion focuses on the bread and wine, as signs of the Body and Blood of Jesus, and that it is Jesus who offered himself as a means of uniting all humankind and creation. If we are encouraged to unite ourselves to all others in an inward and spiritual way to that offering, taking into ourselves the self-giving of Jesus, we will indeed be participants in the Eucharist no matter our physical presence. During the offering of the consecration prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, we might encourage people to join in reciting the full prayer, absorbing the full force of the meaning,
During the time for reception of communion, we might recall the reality of being one with the world of believers, with them taking in the gift of Christ’s sacrifice and making it our own.
My sense is full participation in the Eucharist is possible no matter being present physically or not. To believe otherwise would destroy my faith that Jesus is present with us in the Thanksgiving, and in the consecrated elements, even while he is also returned to the Creator. Christ is present in the Sacrament, but more, Christ is present in our hearts, in our inward spiritual lives.
I know something of this, having been unable to attend services or even swallow enough to take the bread or wine for several months, but nothing separated me from the Sacrament.
So it seems to me we need not find ourselves quarantined from the Sacrament by our quarantine from one another in a time of medical emergency. Indeed, our current situation can help us know even better that “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:39)