July 28, 2021

The Holy Eucharist within the Context of Virtual Worship

As we begin to really examine the implications and possibilities surrounding the continuation of Virtual Worship (VW) within The Episcopal Church (TEC), there are several significant aspects to such a proposal that bear our attention: logistics, standardizations, and theology, to name a few. Logistical planning is not one of my special skills, and standardization requires far more authority than I possess, so I’m going to stay in my lane and look at the theological basis for the sacraments and explore the possibility of their translation within a virtual setting.

I’m going to be completely honest here and tell you that I could easily write hundreds of pages on the foundation, formulation, and theological action that occurs within a given sacramental rite, and admit that it has been difficult for me to not head down a rabbit hole of related, but not totally applicable research. In fact, I have had to separate this complete piece into smaller chunks in order to fill my available space. Having said that, I hope that what I have been able to condense here will be useful to my readers as we seek a way forward in the post-pandemic world. And please, dear reader, stay tuned for “the rest” of this particular discourse in the coming weeks, and ultimately read these as a whole despite their divisions.

Mission: To determine whether the celebration of the Eucharist is congruent with Virtual Worship

Rather than go through each of the sacraments individually in this space, I am going to spend some time on the theological understanding, necessity, and efficacy of sacraments, and attempt to extrapolate some kind of modern relevance for us to use as we move forward. In this article, and those to come, I will pay particular attention to the Eucharist and the role of the priest (and consequently ordination) because, as stated in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), “The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship…as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church,” (BCP, 13.) It is my opinion, for starters, that the BCP provides a really significant basis for our understanding of the sacraments, and indeed is the official position of The Episcopal Church. However, if we are to understand how and why they “work,” and if/how they might work virtually, I think we have a responsibility to dig a little deeper.

What is a sacrament? What do we, as Episcopalians, understand as the necessity and efficacy of sacramental acts?

Rooted in Scripture and several hundred years of theologians doing the hard work and thinking for us - which I don’t say nonchalantly, but with the utmost respect and seriousness for these truly remarkable fathers of theology, the BCP says that “the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace,” (BCP 857). What does that even mean? What is grace? Essentially, the outward, visible signs, in the case of the Eucharist, are the bread and the wine, and the inward and spiritual grace we receive is through consuming them as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Grace, then, is salvation, the salvation given to us by our Incarnate Lord’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins.

Our word, “sacrament” is derived from the Latin word sacramentum, translating to an “oath” or “promise” within the context of public service, responsibilities, or duties. Early Christiansused sacramentum to describe their rites of initiation, however, it was also used by Latin Christians to refer to or translate some specific events within the New Testament using the Greek word mysterion. In the latter, this translation referred to anything that happened that showed or signified the mysteries of God, that is, those events for which we do not have, nor can we ever have, a true, complete understanding, (for example, the hypostatic union - Christ’s nature as both fully human and fully divine.) Early Christians also used mysterion to refer to what *happens* in the sacraments, specifically Baptism and Eucharist. Christ is often referred to as the “original sacrament,” because he is the visible sign of God’s love for and redemption of humanity. (Think John 3:16-21.) This absolutely lines up with TEC’s working definition of a sacrament, don’t you think? Keep these terms in mind as we journey through time and blog space, for they remain eminently relevant to our continued discussion.

On that note, let’s talk about the Eucharist!

The Episcopal Church, within the Catechism, outlines our position on the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament, and identifies some clearly stated points that we will talk about at greater length shortly. These things include a specific explanation of what exactly the “outward and visible signs,” and “the inward and spiritual grace” are within the context of the Eucharist. Pretty useful information, huh? One of things we’re going to talk about shortly is also clearly outlined within the catechism and that is:

“Q. What are the benefits which we receive in the Lord’s Supper?
A. The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.
Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people, (BCP 859-860).”

This language and definition are also very important to keep in mind as we work backwards in time to find out where all of this comes from. (Although perhaps more pedantic and academic in nature, I’m quoting these things so you don’t have to haul out your BCPs and flip for forever until you get to the actual very end of it - especially if you have one of those combined BCP/Hymnal combo volumes!) There’s more to this conversation on BCP, so stay tuned.

Sparing you a complete history of the roots of the sacraments within scripture, patristic writings, and beyond, I will say that these are rites that are not simply “made up” to make us feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for going to church, or that salvation is just the feeling we get after we spend an hour on Sunday in church. Within the context of scripture and Holy Eucharist as it pertains to the priesthood, there are very specific and immeasurably significant reasons why priests alone are able to consecrate the bread and wine, and through the words of Christ and the calling down of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) the bread and the wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Kevin W. Irwin writes in his book, The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology, “…when a scripture text is spoken in the liturgy something happens. Theologically, the principle is that when God speaks, things happen,” (252). Take a look at Genesis - when God says, “Let there be light,” what happens? There’s light! So given that Jesus is the Lord Incarnate, when He speaks, something happens.

Let’s Talk About How Priests Fit into This….

Here we must address the role of the priest and what happens in ordination for there to be a change from bread and wine into Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I’m really going to try to keep this brief, although I seem to be long-winded this week; however, I promise you this is all going to be relevant to our conversation on Virtual Worship. So, off we go!

Because of the roots of the priesthood in Levitical scripture, and then further established through Christ’s commissioning of his Apostles, leading subsequently to apostolic succession, priests are imbued with the God-given authority to do a bunch of stuff, including putting Jesus into the bread and wine, calling on God to change them to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Priests then, through ordination, are charged with standing before God representing the people as a servant to the assembly, to accomplish the sanctification of the Eucharistic elements, and recalling the Jewish tradition of sacrifice, offering them, instead, as a sacrifice to God for our sins.

In this example, one can clearly imagine the understanding of the Eucharist as a recalling of sacrifice wherein the priest acts on behalf of the whole congregation, indeed the whole of the Body of Christ, in a concept known as in persona ecclesiae. The concept of in persona ecclesiae, which literally translates to “in the person of the church,” is an understanding of the role of the priest wherein s/he enacts duties, prayers, and “sacrifices” on behalf of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. This is especially true, in my humble opinion, when the priest is facing the same direction as the congregation - this is a visual representation that not only is the priest charged with the consecration of the Eucharistic elements, but that s/he is also a member of the Body of the Christ before whom s/he stands. In facing in the same direction as the congregation, it takes away any unnecessary hierarchical sense that one might get when the priest is facing the congregation. Think about being in a class in school: all of your co-students are facing the teacher, and your teacher is standing and facing you, teaching you stuff. Isn’t this a pretty good example of an obvious hierarchical and authoritative structure that might, maybe, sorta look like an analogy of the priest facing the congregation?

But I digress. In this way - where the priest acts in persona ecclesiae, the nature of the priesthood recalls that of Aaron outlined in Exodus, specifically in the sacrificial duties he is required to perform on behalf of all the people in the Temple because of his role as an ordained priest (Ex.29). While the sacrifices performed by the Levitical priesthood were typically blood offerings, this concept of in persona ecclesiae refers to a symbolic representation or recalling of sacrifice, because Christ’s crucifixion eliminated the need for further blood/burnt/sin offering.

There is another role imbued in the priest that I am slightly reticent to discuss, because if you thought that my whole spiel about the priest facing the congregation was controversial, you’re probably going to think this next bit is even more so. But please bear with me, both topics have relevance within the context of the consideration of VW.

Let’s jump back to that thing I said about “When God says something, something happens,” and so by obvious extension, “when Jesus says something, something happens.” Well….what does the priest say during the Eucharistic prayer of consecration? The priest says, “on the night [insert Eucharistic Prayer whatever here,] our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me,” (BCP 368). So there are couple of things happening here: First, please note the quotation marks around “Take eat: This is my Body,” etc. What do quotation marks tell us? Gold star for anyone who said quotation marks mean you’re *actually saying* what that person said. Yes! This is important. Why? Because when Jesus says something, something happens. I’m going to avoid the conversation on when the change in the bread and wine occurs, but I will say, that this cause-effect relationship here might suggest that consecration occurs at the words of Christ. Secondly, the priest, per the BCP’s approved Eucharistic Prayer forms, does not say “Jesus said: take eat, this is *like* my body,” or “take eat: think about this bread as though it’s an analogy for my body;” This choice of words and sentence structure purposefully further delineates these words as being the words of Christ himself and not simply a story told in third person.

Regardless of your position on when/where the elements are changed, what’s next might be an even tougher pill to swallow if you are already skeptical, (please don’t send me hate mail if you don’t agree!). When the priest says Christ’s own words, s/he is acting in persona Christi. As earlier discussed, in persona ecclesiae is the priest enacting the role in the person of the church, or on the behalf of the Church. Similarly, in persona Christi is the idea that a priest serves in the person of Christ. Another way to say this is the priest is an alter Christus, or another Christ. The implication of this concept is that a priest is specially ordained to do Christ’s work on His behalf, and that in doing so, has the same authority as Christ. Please don’t freak out - I don’t mean that priests are basically Christ, this isn’t a permanent authority or role - it is specifically restricted to the use of Christ’s own words. Because of the priesthood of Christ, and the embodiment of this role that a priest takes on, when, and only when, performing the Eucharistic consecration *using Christ’s own words*, the priest acts in persona Christi through anamnesis, or vital recall, and in persona ecclesiae by representing the heritage of the Levitical priesthood and the entire Body of Christ. Guess what…. The BCP kinda backs me up on this…. “Q. What is the ministry of a priest or a presbyter? A. The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, etc.,” (BCP 856).

I know you’re reading this and thinking a) that I’m a heretic, b) I still haven’t gotten to the whole point of this when it comes to application to a VW setting, and c) that I’m a heretic (again,) but there is a point to this. If I jump to the conclusion before I give you all of the evidence (of which, I promise, the rest is decidedly historical in nature and the guys who wrote this stuff were never declared heretics, so we’re probably safe, at least for now…), then you miss out on *some* of the foundational theology which will ultimately lend itself to the discussion of VW as it relates to sacramental theology. Besides, I did already tell you I could go on for hundreds of pages, so you were warned, and you may as well stick around for the next one.… But, lest you think I simply like to “hear” myself talk, here’s a few little tidbits to chew on for next time: 1.) why is it so important, within the context of VW, that we understand that all of us are one as the Body of Christ, and what significance do we, as a unified Body, play within the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist? 2.) Why does it matter that priests enact the two roles previously discussed within the context of VW? (I know you’re thinking, “none…you can’t receive communion if you’re not physically present. But I’m asking you to prayerfully consider a bigger picture here - how does a priest’s role effect VW and our decision to move forward with it, or not?)

Please, dear readers, keep in mind that I have no proverbial dog in this fight (I just realized what a really terrible metaphor that is…) and that my work here is simply intended to deepen our discussion on whether there is (or isn’t) a place for VW within TEC from a theological standpoint alone. The things I discuss in this space and (hopefully) challenge you to contemplate are (generally) unbiased, intended to spark further conversation, and also entertain you, if I’m being honest… Until next time, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do His will, working in you that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen,” (Heb. 13:20-21.)