Discern the body: Eucharistic fasting and Covid-19

College Principal Jesse Zink also serves as canon theologian of the Diocese of Montreal. He was recently asked to offer some reflections for the diocese about worship during a time of social distancing.

I never imagined that my Lenten discipline would consist of giving up the Eucharist—and then a global pandemic erupted.

In the midst of the Covid-19 emergency, many clergy have been creatively re-imagining what worship looks like in a time of social distancing. We may not be able to gather in person but we can still gather—through Zoom, Facebook Live, or any of the myriad other tools. As we gather, we can talk, support one another, study the Bible, pray, and worship. But what we’re not able to do is celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a physical, tangible act. You need to touch things that other people have touched. You need to be in the same place and a lot closer than two meters to each other. At a time of social distancing and shelter in place orders, Christian communities cannot celebrate the Eucharist.

This is a hard truth for many of us to hear. Over the last two generations—my entire lifetime—the Eucharist has come to a take a central role in the worship life of the church. Many churches now celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday in a way that would seem foreign to Anglicans of earlier generations. This centrality is proper: the Eucharist is a living testament to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is our thanksgiving for Christ’s saving action and our fullest embodiment as a Christian community. Now, abruptly, we are being asked to set all this aside.

Many other Christians, both in history and around the world today, have endured and even thrived in periods when it has not been possible to celebrate the Eucharist. Whether because of insufficient numbers of clergy, societal disruption, or any number of other reasons, the church has done this before and we can do it today. Still, it can be a difficult fast and so in the midst of this period I offer three thoughts that have recently encouraged me.

Discern the body: In the earliest surviving teaching about the Eucharist, St. Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth to “discern the body” before they receive the bread and wine (I Corinthians 11:29). He’s telling them that they have to be conscious that they are part of a broader community before they can truly receive. If I’m honest with myself, however, I’m not always so good at this. I receive at the same communion rail as people whose names I don’t know and, in truth, haven’t always made much of an effort to get to know.

One of the most heartening things to hear about the life of the church in this pandemic is the way it has led to new forms of relationship in communities. I’ve heard about peripheral members of communities becoming more involved, about people who hadn’t spoken before connecting in a virtual coffee hour, and numerous other ways in which members of the community are discerning the fullness of the body. We can use this fast as a time for deeper discernment of this body of Christ which unites us all.

Pray constantly: St. Paul tells the Christians in Thessalonica that they should “pray without ceasing.” (I Thessalonians 5:17) In the midst of pandemic, I’ve heard about the many new ways in which people are learning how to pray. Christians are being (re-)introduced to the wonderful canticles that can be used at Morning and Evening Prayer (BAS, pp. 72-96) or to the Great Litany which prays for just about everything (BAS, pp. 138-143), and are (re-)learning that the Eucharistic liturgy need not include a communion (BAS, p. 183). That’s just a few examples from the BAS. When you broaden the scope of the search, you can find a whole host of prayer resources from our tradition that have long enriched the prayer life of Christians and can do so again right now.

Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest: Many people have noted that while we may be fasting from the Eucharist, we can still feast on the word. I agree! In the college community, we have turned our weekly service into an extended Bible study. Other communities are doing the same thing. Christian communities that may not have previously had regular Bible study are learning how transforming this can be. There are ample resources online to support this work and more coming all the time. May God’s word be a light to our feet and a lamp to our path in this time (Psalm 119:105).

This pandemic is calling us to an extended fast, a sort of “super Lent.” (The word “quarantine” literally means “40 days.”) May this, like Lent itself, be holy to us and may this time be a blessing to the church so that we may bless a world so deeply in need.