“Communion in the Time of Covid” by Deborah Sokolove

July 25, 2021

As we just heard, in our Gospel reading for today there are two stories about Jesus doing impossible things. I’ll get to the second story, about Jesus walking on water, later. In the first story, Jesus creates a feast for thousands out of a couple of fish and a few pieces of pita, and when everybody had had enough to eat, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers.

There are a lot of stories about Jesus sharing food and drink with others. Whether turning water into wine for the wedding guests at Cana, dining with tax collectors and sinners in the house of Levi, eating an intimate meal with friends in the home of Mary and Martha, having grilled fish for breakfast on the shore with his surprised followers after they had seen him die on the cross, or, as in today’s Gospel, providing abundance where there seemed to be nothing, it is clear that Jesus knew sharing meals with others is important to human thriving.

While the story of the last supper that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his passion and death is most closely connected to our celebration of Holy Communion — or what in other traditions is often called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper — all of the stories in the various gospels in which Jesus is shown eating and drinking, as well as the parables that involve feasting or other meals, enrich our understanding of the symbolic meal that we call Communion.

The word “communion” has the same root as “community.” Both words suggest that there is something that is shared, something we have in common with one another, something that draws us and keeps us together. Most Christians believe that, when we remember Jesus as we break bread and share the cup with one another, something happens that draws us closer to God and to one another.

But today is not the first Sunday of the month, so why am I talking about communion? It will make sense in a bit, so please bear with me.

We are now nearly 18 months into a world-wide pandemic. Life looks almost normal now here in the DC area, and a lot of us are feeling safe because over half of the population are fully vaccinated and even more have had at least one shot. Some of us are eating in restaurants, going to movies, meeting with groups of friends, and doing other things that we would not have even thought about doing as recently as six months ago. Earlier this month, deaths and new cases in our region were approaching zero, and many of us were feeling very hopeful. 

However, most of the rest of the world, and even many areas in the US, never shared these astonishingly low numbers, and even in our relatively well-vaccinated area, the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are trending frighteningly upwards once again. In many countries, the vaccination rates are below 2%, and the pandemic rages on, sickening and killing thousands each day. And as cases continue to multiply, so do the risks that more new variants will emerge that are resistant to the vaccines that so far have proved effective.

It is in this complicated and ever-changing situation that Celebration Circle anticipates returning to in-person worship in a few, short weeks. At a community meeting a few weeks ago, we indicated that one of our metrics for returning to in-person worship would be the ability to safely sing together and to share Communion in our accustomed way. Sadly, we now realize that waiting for that kind of safety would keep us apart for far too long.

Mindful that some among us are not or cannot be vaccinated, and that even some who are fully vaccinated have conditions that render them more vulnerable due to suppressed immune systems, we are planning to continue using video conferencing in a limited way so that anyone who is unable or unwilling to attend in person can participate in some fashion. We will also be asking everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks when we are together indoors, in order to further protect anyone who is vulnerable to the disease for any reason.

But sharing Holy Communion — eating and drinking even a very small bite of bread and an equally tiny sip of juice — necessitates taking off our masks and handing both food and drink to one another. Even handing someone a piece of bread or a tray of cups filled with grape juice, while speaking words of blessing, risks spreading germs in a way that simply is not safe for anyone. And so we in Celebration Circle find ourselves in a dilemma: How can we share the bread and cup in a way that both honors our theological and liturgical tradition and does not endanger the health of the most vulnerable among us?

Seekers is not alone in this question, as I’ve been hearing from some of my professional colleagues who help to make policy in various denominations. Indeed, just this last week I was at a conference of a group of liturgical scholars, and this question was not far from anyone’s mind. Nobody has really good answers. Everyone wants to celebrate Eucharist as the church has always done, and nobody wants to endanger the congregation and, by extension, other people in the wider community.

For some churches, the answers seem relatively simple. Where the tradition has always been that people line up and receive the elements from a priest or Eucharistic minister, very little needs to change. The person giving the bread or wafer can wear a mask and very carefully hand a morsel of bread to each person without touching them. Ministers can wash their hands thoroughly, visibly use hand sanitizer, or even wear gloves if that does not pose a theological or aesthetic problem them. This process minimizes the chances of spreading disease, especially since people only need to take off their masks one at a time for the short moment of actually consuming the elements.

The bigger problem in churches that are Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and some other denominations, is the shared cup. For them, it is important theologically to follow the example of Jesus, who passed a single cup to his disciples at the Last Supper. Since the shared cup at Eucharist is a sacramental sign of oneness in the Body and Blood of Christ, using small, individual cups is theologically suspect. Therefore, many of these churches have decided at the denominational level to simply not offer the cup at all until it is safe to share it once again.

Other church bodies, such as Baptists and others in the Free Church tradition, have long used either a regular loaf cut up into little cubes, or tiny crackers that remind me of chiclets, for the bread; and small, individual cups made of glass, plastic, or sometimes silver, for the fruit of the vine. In some places the trays of bread and cups are passed from hand to hand along the pews. That practice is problematic in this time of pandemic, and it’s not clear to me what changes people are making to that practice. One possibility that has been proposed is to place the elements on the altar, the altar rail, or simply on tables where people line up, each person picking up the elements for themselves. This seems to avoid many of the contagion issues and has actually been the customary usage in some churches for a long time. However, the symbolism of such self-service Communion emphasizes the individual connection with God over the obvious connection with the community that is Christ’s Body when people pass the elements from hand to hand.

At Seekers, our Communion tradition — while certainly not unique — is poses more risk of contagion than some of the ones I’ve just described. Just as we share the preaching because we believe that the Word of God can come to each of us, we also believe that we are all called to serve and be served. So, until the pandemic drove us to serve ourselves the Communion elements in our own homes, we stood in a large circle around the sanctuary and passed the bread and cup to one another.

I have often been moved to tears at the beauty of that circle — all ages, all skin colors, all genders, all with their own stories of wealth or poverty, of ethnic and religious backgrounds, of privilege or pain. As we passed the plate to one another, each would say the name of the person next to them before saying, “The Body of Christ broken for you” and tearubg off a piece of the bread  that often had been baked by some member of the congregation. As we waited our turns,  Glen led us into chanting “Alleluia” or “Ubi Caritas” until everyone held a piece of bread in their hand and whoever was leading the service that day would hold up theirs as they said something like “The Body of Christ, broken for us so that we may be bread for the world. Feed on Christ in your hearts with thanksgiving” and we all solemnly chewed our portion of the bread that is somehow also Christ.

And then, chanting again, each of us said to our neighbor, “The cup of salvation, poured out for you,” or perhaps “The cup of healing”  as we passed the trays of little ceramic cups that Marjory had thrown at her potter’s wheel so many years ago, carefully forming each one at the top of a single lump of clay. Again, we waited until all were served and the leader said, “The blood of Christ is poured out for us so that we may be poured out for the healing of the world. Drink deeply of it” before we all drained our cups. Finally, chanting yet again, we brought our empty cups to the altar and returned to our seats to pray our gratitude for God’s eternal love and healing presence in our celebration of bread and cup, and to ask for the power to attend faithfully to our call to be God’s servants, with each other and throughout the world.

As I remember how it was in the before-time, I don’t know how doing Communion any other way can ever be so deep and meaningful. And yet, finding another way is the choice before us, because, as long as the pandemic rages, singing as we stand shoulder to shoulder, breathing words of blessing over uncovered bread and cups, each of us handling the elements that everyone will have to unmask at the same time in order to consume the elements together all around the circle, is an invisible but nonetheless real danger to members of our community.

Celebration Circle has been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what to do, and rejecting every answer as either symbolically problematic, logistically unworkable, or both. Should we cut up the bread and put it on toothpicks like hors d’oeuvres, arrange wafers on a plate so that none of them touch any others, or ask everyone to bring their own morsel from home? Should we continue to use our traditional communion cups and trust that whoever washes them will do a good job, or use tiny disposable cups of plastic or paper? Should we divide up the congregation into several circles, so that no one stands closer than six feet away from anyone they don’t live with? Or, should we line up and receive the elements from one or two designated communion ministers? Or maybe we should just leave the elements on the altar so that each person in turn can pick up their portion?  Or, maybe we should just give up on the idea of face-to-face Communion all together, and revert to solitary Communion on Zoom for that one Sunday a month.

Finally, in our meeting a couple of weeks ago, I said in desperation, “Maybe we should fast from Communion until everyone is safe to participate again in the way that means so much to so many. Maybe the answer is that instead of celebrating Communion together on the first Sunday of each month, our task on that day in this time of pandemic is to fast from our celebration of bread and cup, and pray for the healing of the world.” After some discussion of this idea, Celebration Circle decided to recommend that we do exactly that, in solidarity with all those who cannot be with their loved ones who are sick and dying of covid all over the world, and with our own members whose fragile health might be compromised by sharing the bread and cup together.

After the benediction today, we will have a community meeting. We welcome further theological reflection on the idea of fasting from Communion until the pandemic is over, as well as any other ideas and feelings about what to do about Communion when we begin to gather in person for worship in September.

Before we get there, however, let’s return to the second story in our Gospel reading. After everyone has eaten their fill of bread and fish, they start imploring Jesus to be their king. Instead, he goes away and climbs a nearby mountain. When he doesn’t come back by nightfall, the disciples get in a boat and start rowing across the water. Halfway to the other side, a storm comes up, and suddenly they see Jesus walking on the waves, saying, “Here I am. Don’t be afraid.” And no sooner had he said that than he, and they, were at their destination.

It seems to me that, just like the disciples in that story, right now we are in a storm, halfway across some very dark and turbulent waters, unable to see where we are going, and thinking we have to get there on our own power. If we are willing to fast, pray, and listen for God’s voice, maybe we, too, will see Jesus walking across the waves. Maybe we, too, will know that God is with us, taking us to a destination that we cannot yet see.

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