There was a scandal in early Methodism about Eucharist at some point. I don’t have the date or the exact quotes. Maybe it wasn’t even a scandal; maybe just a clarification. But John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism, once said something like if people who aren’t yet baptized want to receive the body and blood of Christ, who am I to get in the way of their salvation?
I think I’m mixing some of his words with some of Pope Francis’s words. In any case, millions (or at least hundreds of thousands?) of Europeans once died in ferocious wars over disputes about Eucharist during the Protestant Reformation. Is it literally, physically Jesus’ body? Or is Jesus just speaking metaphorically? Is it solely about obeying Jesus’ command to memorialize his last supper or are we receiving the life that Jesus says in John 6:53 we can only receive by eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Do we have to use Aquinas’ specific scholastic language for it or is it good enough to say that it is somehow mysteriously Jesus fully present?
I’m going to call it Eucharist instead of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper because Eucharist is a Greek verb meaning thanksgiving and that’s what it’s about. It’s recognizing that God can take Hawaiian bread and grape juice or crappy wine and turn it into Jesus’ body and blood. Not only that, but in fact every single created thing is a sacrament and when we receive all created things eucharistically as a gift from God, we live the way humans were meant to live. And if you don’t like that theology, take up your argument with Augustine and Alexander Schmemann, because I didn’t invent it.
Sacraments are signs that point to the deeper reality of God’s presence everywhere. They are “I love you’s” given to us by God. Some of the “I love you’s” have specific meaning because they have been instituted by church tradition and when we partake of them we are anchored in that tradition. But my flowers say I love you from God as does my basil and cilantro. The sand that I poured to mark the labyrinth God told me to build in my backyard says I love you from God as does the fountain I put in the center.
Tradition is valid and important. I’m a radical who undervalues it and I need conservatives to hold onto it and push back against my radicalism so that I don’t run amok and start blessing Cheetos and Fanta and telling people that Jesus’ body can take literally any form. Because anything that is everything basically becomes nothing. There is validity to marking a difference between sacred and common, because without designated sacred things, everything is just a cheap trinket that capitalism can monetize. Not that I’m trying to dis the youth pastors who do Cheeto and Fanta communions; I don’t understand it; I’m sure God uses it somehow.
To be entirely honest, I believe that the Host offered by the Roman church has a kind of power that my chunk of Hawaiian bread seems to lack when I break it and say, “This is my body broken for you.” Maybe every priest doubts his own worthiness and there’s a doctrine called ex opere operato that officially declares that no priest’s unworthiness can sabotage God’s power.
But when I go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, I weep every time I hear Monseñor Rossi sing in his lovely baritone voice, “Through him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And before I go forward for the Eucharist that is illegal for me to take as a Protestant, I say in unison with the whole congregation, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And when I kneel trembling and open my mouth for the priest to put the Host on my tongue, always wondering if he’s going to figure me out and deny me at the last minute, the glory that I receive when I feel the wafer in my mouth is more than anything I can ever imagine giving to another person.
When all of this coronavirus nightmare is over, I will make a pilgrimage to the National Shrine. I will probably spend an hour with my face on the ground in the back prostrating myself to the giant Jesus in the front whose eyes wept one time when I looked closely at them. Because I am home in that room with my face on the ground in a way that I am not in most other places. I will go into the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament where the uncreated light fills the room and I will speak in the secret love language that the Holy Spirit gave me to utter my groans with. Maybe one day I will get to go to Jerusalem and I will get to put my face on the stone of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher. But short of that, the National Shrine is the holiest place I have ever known.
What I’m about to say may make all of this seem like a disingenuous preface I put out for the sake of argument. But I really believe that despite the acuteness with which I have experienced sacredness that has been channeled through very strict, specific traditional practices, I am most compelled by the pragmatic conception of holiness that seems to be the part of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s message that their patriarchal handlers throughout the centuries have consistently missed.
Jesus says if your ox falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, you pull it out and you don’t get your panties in a wad about supposedly violating a commandment. Paul says that he is convinced that nothing is unclean in itself, only doing what we think is unclean because it’s unclean. If Jesus and Paul are right and if ex opere operate is in fact valid doctrine, then why would blessing crackers and grape juice over the internet somehow be worse than the drunken priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory forgetting half the words of the liturgy?
It’s really hard not to see all the hand-wringing over online communion as just a form of theological masturbation and performative grandstanding. And yes, the fact that I have crawled multiple times on my hands and knees from the back of the National Shrine to the altar saying in complete desperation, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son Of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” gives me at least some authority to say that.
Do we really believe what Jesus says in John 6:53? “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” If we actually believe that, then we need to get Jesus’ flesh and blood into us as often as possible. John Wesley preached a sermon called “The Duty of Constant Communion” specifically about this.
If communion is all just pageantry for us to use as a backdrop for our orthodoxy battles and ordination papers, then by all means, let’s not do it again. Ever. Because after this pandemic is over, many people are never again going to sit in a church pew. And among the few who will come back into the pews, many will object to having a single loaf or cup. Communion by intinction is utterly dead in the water now. It’s going to be shotglasses and crackers for all of us from now on, probably.
And I will probably rebel against this if I ever serve in an ordained capacity in a church again. Because there’s nothing more repugnant to me as an ex-Baptist than single-serving Jesus. It defeats the whole point of the ritual to have salvation prepackaged in individual portions. We are saved by becoming the body of Christ and being incorporated into one another with him as the head. Atonement is utterly participatory and the fundamental misdeed that is being corrected is the mistrust of God that the serpent conned Adam and Eve into bequeathing to humanity.
When we receive a piece of bread that has been torn by another human, we are trusting that whatever germs they have will not kill us and even if they do, we will live eternally because Jesus is in that piece of bread. The miraculous rite that is the lifeblood of the apostolic church must not be defeated by the combination of the coronavirus and crotchety theologians waving their orthodoxy around.
If we’re not going to do online communion, then we should gather in the flesh without washing our hands to see what God does for us if we tear bread and put it in each other’s mouths and pass a single cup of real wine around to swig from. Since I am a pragmatic mystic, I think online communion is the better choice.