As I write these words, we are under effective lockdown because of the spread of the Corona Virus, often referred to as “Covid 19”. In the current absence of a vaccine, the health departments of the various governments here in Canada have determined that the only way to slow the spread of the disease is by “social distancing”—i.e. by staying away from others by a distance of several feet. This obviously presents a problem for those assembling in public, such as those at sports events, movie theatres, and restaurants—and churches. Therefore, our bishops have decided most reluctantly to close the churches for now to cooperate with the authorities in being good citizens, since even when one sanitizes walls, tables, chairs, and icons, one cannot keep a sufficient distance from the other worshippers.
The issue, of course, is one of charity: even if one does not care for one’s own health, one wants to avoid giving the disease to another. Simply saying, “Trust God” is not an answer. We are repeatedly commanded to obey the secular authorities God has placed over us (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-15). We are also taught by divine example not to leap off the pinnacle of a temple, trusting that God will catch us and save us from the consequences of our own stupidity. God gave us all a brain, and He expects us to keep it plugged in and turned on.
This present crisis teaches us a number of important lessons, even apart from the lesson that we should obey the secular authorities and our bishops. It teaches us the importance of fervent prayer. It teaches us the virtues of patience and of perseverance. And it teaches us the importance and true nature of the Church, which is that of community.
We have already seen that temporary separation from the church community can be an effective Lenten discipline. Such a separation from the church community is an effective discipline precisely because it is temporary and unusual. It is the same as any other kind of Lenten fasting: abstinence from meat is an effective discipline because generally we do not abstain from meat. (Vegans, presumably, find other forms of Lenten discipline.) And the separation from our fellow parishioners at worship is a discipline precisely because most Sundays find us together with them. It is the stark difference between our present practice and the norm that makes the practice into a discipline.
We see then that the reception of the holy Eucharist cannot sensibly be separated from this gathering together as a church. Indeed, the very word “church”— ekklesia in Greek—means “gathering”. Individual Christians gather together on Sunday, and the result of this action is a gathering, an assembly, an ekklesia, a church. Christ has promised to be among His people when they gather like this, even if the gathering is a very small one consisting only of two or three (Matthew 18:20). That is why the Church is the Body of Christ—Christ is present in and through this gathering and works through it in the same way as we are present in and work through our own body.
The Eucharist presupposes this gathering, and supports it. St. Paul taught that when individual Christians receive the Eucharistic bread, they are thereby joined afresh to Christ in His body. In this way the Church is reconstituted every week at the Eucharist. In the words of Paul, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). In other words, we become the one body of Christ because we all share in the same Eucharistic bread. The Eucharist is what Christians do on Sunday when they gather together in the Lord’s Name, and the celebration of the Eucharist presupposes a previous gathering.
That is why the Eucharist cannot be celebrated alone. The priest cannot serve the Eucharist (or “say Mass” in old western terms) all by himself, for the Eucharist presupposes a gathering of all the faithful, even if the gathering comprises no more than two or three people. And for the same reason, one cannot receive Holy Communion at home by oneself with the aid of a television set. I remember in the days of my youth watching Rex Humbard on television, who billed himself as “your T.V. pastor”. He would sometimes hold a Communion service on his television show and invite those at home to have Communion with him by taking a piece of bread and a sip of wine (well, grape juice actually) at the time they all did. The problem (one of many) was that those at home could not gather together with everyone else having Communion. They were not a part of the church or the assembly because they did not in fact assemble. Viewing television at home is not assembling; it is sitting down and watching. To be part of the morning ekklesia one must leave home and assemble. That is what the word means.
What then of the ancient practice (mentioned by St. Justin Martyr in his Apology chapter 67) of the deacons taking the Eucharist to those who were not present at the Sunday morning assembly? This is the exception that proves the rule. Those to whom the deacons took Holy Communion were the sick and shut-in who were not able to assemble. Those absent did not decide to sleep in or stay away because found assembling inconvenient. And the deacons did not commune them simply to give them the sacrament, as if the Church was simply a kind of sacramental outlet, making available the Eucharist to individuals; it was to preserve their unity with the assembly from which their sickness had temporarily separated them. Their reception was of the Eucharist did not only unite them to Christ, as if it were a spiritual vitamin which worked by itself apart from the assembly. The Eucharist they received from the deacons united them to the assembly where it was celebrated. Put another way, it united them to Christ who had manifested Himself in the assembly. The Eucharist therefore reveals the centrality of the assembling Church.
This is one of the lessons that Covid 19 teaches us. During this present crisis we fast from assembling in the same that we fast from certain foods during Great Lent. And the discipline of fasting from food sharpens our appetite for that from which we fast. After forty days of fasting from meat, fish, and dairy, we look forward to feasting on them again at Pascha when the Great Fast is over. We miss eating these foods, and feel the abstinence keenly.
In the same way, we now look forward to assembling again when the crisis has subsided, since we keenly miss the Eucharistic assembly. We miss not only receiving the Eucharist, but also miss seeing our friends. If the rigours of the fast make even (for me anyway) McDonald’s hamburgers seem appealing, perhaps the rigours of missing Church will make appealing even the sight of some of our parishioners whom we previously found difficult!
Meanwhile, we continue to fast, abstaining from the Eucharist and from assembling as a church. Let us use this time of abstinence to grow closer to Christ through fervent prayer and to let it sharpen our appetite for the Eucharist. Thanks to Covid 19, we may never again take for granted the Sunday Liturgy.