As I approach the sacred celebrations of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the Feast of the Resurrection in our new on-line state of mind, let's say that I am aware of the challenges facing us all: more than ever before in my life, our high holy days will be dressed in humility. And solitude. And a growing sense of angst about the worst that is still to come. Even the "doubter in chief" has come to acknowledge that what we will collectively experience over the next three weeks will be a grief unlike anything we have known. The sheer magnitude of death that is just starting to take place will wound us all. That is why the best minds of our generation are urging us to enter now into an anticipatory grief. It is the way to ready ourselves for the onslaught of suffering to come that will be greater than that of WWII.
Good liturgy, practiced honestly and shared faithfully, teaches us about such matters: in the cycle of the church year we encounter celebration and sorrow, light and darkness, hope and despair, presence and emptiness as well as life and death and life beyond death. I understand that we don't often realize this as we coast through the seasons, but that is what liturgy offers: a chance to practice entering the heights and depths of the human experience in the presence of God's grace. The wise Gertrud Mueller-Nelson has long taught that liturgy in the parish is a fully embodied journey that gives us resources to rest in God's love no matter what is happening within and around us. Advent teaches us to wait with open hearts and patience for the God who shows up in the most unexpected places. Christmas and Epiphany are all about God's love breaking into our ordinary humanity like a light in the darkness. Lent leads us into the reality of facing grief and emptiness openly - and learning that sorrow does not last forever. There is paradox in Palm Sunday where we find ourselves shouting both "Hosanna" and "Crucify him!" Maundy Thursday humbles us with the vulnerability and love of foot washing. Good Friday leads us into the shadows of death and despair. The Easter Vigil takes us through salvation history that climaxes in the new life of resurrection at Easter. The 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are times to listen and watch for the Holy Spirit's wisdom as it breaks into the darkness with joy. As the wisdom of Ecclesiastes teaches us: to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.
During our current season of uncertainty, fear and death I discerned that one of the ways I could encourage tenderness and hope was to continue my online Sunday reflections. I have reached out to a few independent musicians who have graciously given me permission to use their music for these broadcasts (I will compensate them so that no copyrights are violated.) And depending on how long we find ourselves needing to celebrate life by living in solitude, they may join me for some programs through the miracles of technology. I am hoping some of my poet friends will become a part of this, too. I don't want to diminish anyone's support for their own faith community. Please stay in touch with your folk! And, know that what I am trying to offer is another way of doing community and theological thinking during this bewildering season.
Let me turn now to this coming Sunday: I will be celebrating Holy Communion - Eucharist - the Lord's Supper with you online for Palm Sunday. Some have asked how is this even possible given that this feast is most often done in community. Behind the practical considerations of these queries, I believe that there are some theologies and habits colliding. As we struggle to find new ways of going deeper into grace in this bewildering context, I want to be clear of why I am moving forward:
+ Like John Calvin, I experience the radical mystery of being mystically transported into the presence of Jesus during the Eucharist. This is not unlike the way some understand the Passover Seder to be both a meal of remembrance as well as participation. Unlike some Reformed leaders, Calvin suggested that we are spiritually lifted into the presence of Christ during the Lord's Supper. It is not merely a symbolic encounter with a past event, although it is that, too. It is an inward transformation by grace. For me, I intuitively honor the notion of consubstantiation with the bread and wine even as I make room for those who experience transubstantiation as well as the Zwingli-ish symbolic understanding of communion as an historical ordinance. I choose to be wildly open-ended about this celebration and accept that "now I see as through a glass darkly; and later I shall see face-to-face."
+ At the same time, I know that my loved ones in the Roman tradition have chosen to suspend the holy obligation of attending Mass during the pandemic. This decision is driven by an ecclesiastical and theological belief that only an ordained priest can facilitate the consecration of the bread and wine so that it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. Fr. Richard Rohr, operating from what he calls an "alternative orthodoxy," however, has been quick to tell us that the Roman hierarchy has always made a dispensation for emergencies. In times of life and death, they have granted authority to lay people to perform the sacraments – any and all of them - if needed. Rohr calls this the official theological "escape hatch that acknowledges either the real limitations of the priesthood or honors the radicality of the priesthood of all believers. My take on this moment in time is that because staying at home away from community - and the priesthood - is a matter of life and death, the door has been opened for lay people to bless the elements during these online Eucharists. When we make certain that there is a simple liturgical prayer of consecration that anyone at home can offer, the elements do in fact become the blessed sacrament of grace.
+ Interestingly, to date the Lutherans, are still in a quandary about what to do with online communion. Their tradition posits that only the ordained clergy can facilitate the blessing of the elements, so they are urging their communicants to partake of a "spiritual communion" (much like the Vatican) during the pandemic. This strikes me as a weird historical mistaken given Luther's doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” But such is the path they have chosen for the time being. The Episcopalians have not made a formal decision.
+ The Methodists, Presbyterians and others of the radical Reformation have now chosen to encourage online communion. Not only were their congregations already doing it anyway said some leaders, but these traditions have long tried to practice radical inclusivity. They trust that the Holy Spirit will be present wherever “two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name. Communion, therefore, in not merely a horizontal ceremony or symbol that requires a priest, but rather it is the mystical union of Christ and his followers whether we are gathered or scattered. Further, these traditions believe that the healing presence of Christ in this time of tumult brings reassurance and strength to the whole community.
In thinking about all of this I was reminded of an introduction to Eucharist I lead back in Tucson that utilized four different movies to capture three different but inter-related truths that are always present during the feast. The first honors the mystical Body of Christ that includes the "great cloud of witnesses" in heaven who have gone before us but who join us in prayer and Eucharist as portrayed in "Places in the Heart."
The second is the unexpected joy and sensuality of feasting on God's grace rather than just enduring a life of sacrifice - and no film gives shape and form to this grace better than "Babette's Feast." It also celebrates the way the one who is on the periphery is often the messenger of healing.
Our encounter with forgiveness at the table - especially the forgiveness that finds us a place despite our offenses - is given beauty and drama in "Chocolat." Note that the Alfred Molina character, the bullying patriarch of the town, has fallen into temptation and gluttony only to be welcome into the love of Easter.
And then the exuberance the whole people of God - including the most simple and broken among us - experience when they embrace one another in grace as shown in Zefferili's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon."
Over the course of 40 years, I have always encouraged the weekly celebration of Eucharist in each the congregations I have served. Sometimes we were able to overcome habit, sometimes not. But going back to Calvin’s words re: giving our churches time to catch up to our new understanding of living as the whole people of God: it seems as if 500+ years after the Reformation is long enough to get up to speed. I hope you will join with me - or some congregation - if you are called to be a part of the feast day. (NOTE: If you do choose to join us, please print or have accessible the simple Palm Sunday liturgy I have prepared for our use? You can find it here and on Face Book (at my spiritual direction page: Be Still and Know.)