As habits of worship attendance had been changing in our culture long before the pandemic, and now have been made even more diverse during the two years OF the pandemic, it seems this might be a useful question to ask.
When we talk about church, we often talk about the necessity of going to church. But in reality, at least in Christian theology, the encouragement to gather weekly is centered around one act during the worship service in particular–the reception of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Communion.
Here’s where I will admit something: our own household communion practices have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. My family prior to the pandemic came to church every week. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have been attending the liturgy via the livestream. For about the first year of that time, when I would get home from leading worship and administering the Eucharist at church (in whatever form that took), we would break out some simple bread and share it as the body of Christ (nothing against the blood, we just generally don’t have wine or grape juice in our house and so communion in one kind became our habit).
But more recently, I’ve been forgetting to administer it to them when I returned home. We share the Eucharist in church (we are now back to in-person worship), but my family has chosen to continue to attend via the live-stream as their primary worship setting, other than when our youngest child is an acolyte. This is probably a mix of preference, practicality, and a decision to not add more exposure to their lives (we also still don’t eat inside restaurants, for example).
Here’s a key insight, though. Just because something falls out of habit doesn’t mean it’s not important. You can learn a lot of lessons from how your habits change, but one thing we can’t or shouldn’t learn when we let something slide is that it simply has no value.If that were true, why do we commit to restarting exercise habits, or better nutrition, etc.?
Okay, so we’re two years into this pandemic. It changed your worship habits. What should you do now, and why? This takes me back to the main thing, the meaning of the Eucharist, and specifically what it does.
Here’s a great meditation from Jesper Svartvik, translated from his (unfortunately not yet translated in full from the Swedish) book Förundran och föväntan (English: Amazement and Anticipation).
“Many Christians see the Holy Communion as the true center of the Christian worship service. Jesus invites them to Communion and to listen and learn from his words: ‘Do THIS in remembrance of me!’ Not, ‘Do THAT in remembrance of me!’ The difference has been spelled out by S. Mark Heim, who lays specific emphasis on the word, ‘that.’ Do not portray God as a blood-thirsty heavenly parent who demands the suffering and death of a son! Do not accuse anyone of the death of Jesus, do not torture, do not kill in the name of God! Do not do that! Instead, do this in remembrance of me, that which Christians do when they gather to worship: thank God, sing hymns praising God, share food and drink, bread and wine. In this way the crucifixion in Christian Communion points away from violence.”
That is to say, the Eucharist is a way to remember the life and teachings of Jesus, and added bonus, it does so not just in a kind of liberal Christian fashion, with an imitation on right knowledge and teaching about Jesus and his kingdom, but it does so as a healing resource. It points away from violence toward healing, and away from romanticizing suffering by bringing it very practically into a group sharing a meal.
The thing about the Eucharist: it can be kind of boring and repetitious. There’s no profound inner light or darkness evoked when one receives it. Mostly people don’t fall down in contortions or have big revelations. They just come up, get a small piece of bread and a little drink of wine or juice, and someone, often quietly, says, “This is Jesus for you.”
We might be tempted to not prioritize something so boring.
But again, why? I mean, some of the most essential things in life are repetitious and plain. Brushing your teeth. Taking one step after another when we walk. So is the weekly reception of the Eucharist lacking in interest because it’s a small and regular event, or is it profound precisely in being mundane? I think the latter.
What can we learn from this, and do? I suggest we do a reboot. If you’ve allowed your communion practices to fall out of habit, no guilt. That happens. But if you would like to participate in the primary act Jesus initiated to heal us of our propensity to violence and the romanticization of suffering, then join the Eucharist.
You can participate in it at church, or you can set up to share it at home. Jesus did not define the specific setting or size of group in which the meal is to be shared. Just that we are to do it often in remembrance of him, so that we learn from him to do THIS and not THAT.
This, or something like it, is I think the most profound reconciliation of the values of “progressive” and “liturgical” Christianity. Social justice in the world and weekly worship in the church are not an either/or. They are, precisely, of a piece.