“So what happens,” I ask my Religion and Media students every semester, “when we can 3-D print the Eucharistic host?” At this point in the lecture, we’ve long determined that the physical reality of the Sacraments precludes virtual Communion. As I suggest the image of 3D wafers, they giggle or shrug or nod. “It’s coming,” I say, after a pregnant pause, “and we’re gonna have to figure it out.” I’ve been quite proud of this hypothetical in the past few years. Little did I know that what was “coming” wasn’t a techno-economic advance, but a global pandemic that would close churches and leave the faithful ultimately uncommuned.
Many pastors and theologians would disagree with that description. In fact, many are arguing for the possibility of online Communion, such as Aiden Luke Stoddart of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. Stoddart proposes a “Eucharist via Zoom.” And he means that literally: “first, we will ‘gather’ for worship via a meeting on the Zoom platform. Each congregant—wherever she may be—will be invited to make ready some bread and wine in her own location.” As a pastor, Stoddart is searching for an innovation (his word) of the Sacrament, and this impulse makes sense. Pastors are left in this time of uncertainty without recourse to the very thing to which they are used to turning themselves and their communities in such moments: public worship. The pandemic has meant a real loss for the church. People feel the absence of their communities, and in the center of this absence is a void yearning for the sacraments.
Yet I maintain that even in virtual worship, we remain ultimately uncommuned in a full sense. This may come as a surprise, given that my work in digital theology has been decidedly optimistic with regard to the relationship of the church to digital culture. I have argued that the church needs the internet in order to build and maintain the social matrix necessary for the extra-liturgical buttresses of the Body of Christ. But I have stopped short of advocating for online sacraments, and the current crisis has challenged me to clarify my thinking on the matter, at least in a preliminary way.
Let me state unequivocally that I fully appreciate the impulse to innovate the sacraments given the prospect of involuntarily forgoing them for this amount of time. What lurks on the opposite extreme is a dangerous idolatry of our own practices that puts the lives of our own members at risk. And the mere assertion that maybe the most vulnerable among us shouldn’t die so we can go to mass is deemed “disastrous sentimentalism.”
The church is in the world and cannot be otherwise, and must respond and adapt to the vicissitudes of history and culture. Indeed, this point is eschatological as much as it is empirical. As Yves Congar reminds us, “When the Body of Christ has reached its final state in Heaven there will no longer be any mediating activity of the hierarchical priesthood, no magisterium of the faith, no ruling authority, no ‘dogma’, no law, no sacrament: for God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15: 28)…there will be an end to the machinery of the earthly Church, her hierarchy, temples, powers, her aspect of law and synagogue, all the things that belonged to a time of waiting and change, when the sacramentum was not yet completely res.” Alas, we’re here with our sacramentum, awaiting its complete res.
So given our inability to join at the altar in the same physical space, why not innovate the Eucharist and encourage “Eucharist via Zoom”? Is this not what the moment demands of our sacramental practice? Unfortunately, I think not. In the end, the kind of practice Stoddart and others propose–such as procuring similar elements and participating with them in a virtual consecration–is theologically untenable.
I speak only from the Catholic tradition, but I venture to guess that my theological claims will resound with other Christian traditions with sacramental theologies close to Catholicism. I am indebted to the work of Louis-Marie Chauvet for my understanding of sacramental theology, and Chauvet is helpful for charting the course in these turbulent times. For while I reject the notion of virtual Eucharist, I also reject an instrumentalist understanding of the sacraments that can lead to their becoming magical tools for dispensing the grace of God. Therefore, we must take seriously the suggestion for online Eucharist because it forces us to confront the many ways in which we turn the sacraments into that which they simply are not.
According to Chauvet, the sacraments (of which the Eucharist is par excellence) are best understood within the framework of “gift exchange,” contrasted with the dominant framework of “market exchange.” It is in the Eucharist that we encounter the pure gift of God’s grace, and this encounter draws us into a reciprocity that transcends the objectifying logic of the market. Received as the kenotic gift of Christ’s own Body, the Eucharist forms us to give ourselves as gift and become what we eat: the Body of Christ to one another. And of course there are other ways in which Christians encounter and are formed by God’s grace, imbuing our communities with the self-gift that sustains them and turns them outward to the world.
But from a sacramental perspective, the Eucharist is not a generalized moment of communion but a particular, instantiated, and most importantly, ecclesially-mediated one. It is precisely in the particularity of those elements on that altar that I consume God’s gift in order to become gift myself in the context of the Communion of Saints. But those elements on that altar are situated with the context of the church universal, mediated primarily but not exclusively by the priestly office bound to the Order of Bishops. My consumption, even though I receive on my hands and eat with my mouth, is never just my own. It is a consumption grounded in a communal yearning for that which we lost in the Garden of our brokenness: an unmediated relationship to God, to others in our Creator, and to creation itself.
We cling to media—all of things that connect us to the world and to God—because it is the mark of our humanity, flawed but disposed to grace. But these mediations, especially in their sacramental form, are not merely empty or neutral tools for the “real.” They are, indeed, participating symbols in the sacramental economy, connecting heaven to earth, grace to nature. We rejoice in their mediation, not because of what they produce because of what they actually are, and the fullness of grace to which they point.
Attempts at virtual Eucharist seek to occupy the space between denying the importance of the sacrament on the one hand, and overemphasizing obligation to the detriment of human life on the other. But in proposing the ad hoc creation of the Eucharistic table on an individual basis, we risk instrumentalizing the sacrament in the process, as it becomes merely the means by which we feel communed with others over virtual space. We can, indeed, experience virtual communion, but it is always in reference to the communion of the Eucharist itself. This Eucharist, by necessity, cannot be diffused on an ad hoc basis. Once it is subject, on any kind of normalized scale, to the particulars of individual choices or access, it ceases to be what it is. (I suggest that such practices could occupy a novel middle space between sacramental liturgy and individual spiritual practices. They seem to me to fall closest to Liturgy of the Hours or praying with the Book of Common Prayer: they are communally-oriented but can be individually-mediated.)
Our community, in the most theological sense of the unity found among those who have communed, is not effected by the good intentions of its individual members. Spiritual communion is real and finds much support in the history of the church. But it is different from partaking of the Body, and it has to be. Without this difference, the Eucharist, supposedly the “source and summit of the Christian life” would collapse under the weight of individual preference, despite our efforts to unite believers in earnest. It would become, like so many things have become, one more practice that I can take or leave, one more practice that may or may not suit my personal needs.
In trying to innovate sacramental practices through our technological paradigm, we have failed to consider a hard truth: our technology cannot (yet) support the fullness of sacramental life when it comes to the Eucharist. Though digital technology offers a more interactive interface, it remains on the level of television insofar as it tends in the direction of individuated consumption of liturgical practice. The mediating structures of the church—namely, the Roman missal and the office of the Bishop—are the necessary components of consecration that cannot, as yet, be standardized through the dual mechanism of device and private elements. Were we somehow able to partake of the same elements as those with whom we find ourselves at the table, perhaps virtual Eucharist begins to make sense. Perhaps.
So where does this leave us in 2020? In a word, it leaves us in pain.
The church is in pain, and the very thing to which it runs in the midst of pain is at the very center of the pain itself. But instead of seeking reprieve from the pain of this loss, the pain of being uncommuned, I suggest that we enter into its reality. I suggest that we feel the deep absence of the Body of Christ, both sacramentally and ecclesially, just as we felt its absence as the infant church on the day of the Ascension. We are tempted to fix our eyes on the sky, our mouths agape, and the fear or uncertainty that wells up within us leads us into two temptations: to fix our eyes on the sky and ignore the reality around us, or to ignore the absence of the Body in favor of what we can create around us. God, of course, requires that we stop looking at the sky and work in hope.
To enter into this pain may remind us of all people whom we leave out of our communion when there isn’t a pandemic. Maybe it will remind us of all of the ways we fail constantly to contribute to the justice of the Reign of God. Maybe it will teach us anew of the ever-innovative, ever-radical truth of the Eucharist itself: it is only in self-gift that we are the Body of Christ.
[Photo courtesy of Katherine G. Schmidt]
Katherine G. Schmidt is assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Molloy College. Her forthcoming book, Virtual Communion, will be released in April by Rowman and Littlefield.