Several weeks ago as the implications of the novel corona virus finally dawned in the consciousness of America, a pastor asked me about “virtual” communion, i.e., the pastor live streaming the words of institution while the folks at home set up bread and wine in front of their computer screen.
In reply, I expressed my theological opinion that the Lord’s Supper is intended for the time and place where and when the church dispersed “gathers as the church” (1 Corinthians 11:18). This is because the koinonia of the assembly in the sharing of the one cup and the one loaf is essential to it being the Lord’s Supper, not my supper or your supper. I told the pastor that I would take the deprivation imposed by the virus on our koinonia in the Lord as an opportunity to teach my people how this pandemic is to be interpreted in faith as a judgment on our collective greedy individualism, by which I mean a consumerist mentality even in matters of faith where my private dose of inspiration or consolation trumps all other considerations. But I would also teach that Eucharistic deprivation for this sad and troubling time can also be made to serve for the ultimate a renewal of holy Communion precisely in the sense that Communion is to be understood not only every person’s communion with the Lord but also simultaneously and inseparably the koinonia with one another gathered in the Lord. As Jesus unites us with himself by imparting his body and blood to each who receives so also he unites us with all the others to whom he imparts himself. So this present is a time of deprivation and imposition of “fasting” from the Lord’s Supper. It is a time for reflection on what makes the church the church when we cannot “gather” as the church. Come to think of it, I concluded, not a bad way to observe Lent. When I posted these reflections I had given to the pastor on Facebook they generated quite a storm of discussion and as I had hoped a more serious theological reflection on the sense of Holy Communion.
As a result of this discussion I have developed further thoughts on Eucharistic fasting. Given that I think 1 Corinthians and the Lutheran Confessions make it abundantly clear that the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal for the faithful gathered in koinonia/sharing of the body and blood of Christ to eat and drink together from the one loaf and the one cup, I would hasten first of all to add additional reasons for Eucharistic fasting having to do with our culture of greedy individualism/consumerism. I worry that the proposal for virtual communion amounts to so much ambulance chasing and/or desperate marketing in which the consumerist tale wags the dog of the church’s ministry of Word and sacrament. The fast imposed upon us by the virus summons us instead to sober social self-examination. I would refer the reader to two books that I’ve read in recent times in corroboration.
The late Jean Bethke Elshtain was a friend of mine, especially in her years of fascination with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Vaclav Havel. Her final book, Sovereignty: God, State and Self develops an innovative and penetrating critique of our culture of “excarnation,” the opposite of Christian belief in divine incarnation promising the ultimate redemption of the body. Her point is that the modern dream of the domination of extended things by thinking things initiated in Descartes’ philosophy has brought us to a point where our greedy “lust for domination” has turned against the human body itself, which we increasingly regard as nothing but a thing, putty in hands to be manipulated by never satisfied egoism. Of course the body, which we are, is fragile and vulnerable: from dust we were taken into dust we return. And the truth is that the thinking things which are our brains are also embedded in the ecology of physical and living things and not some transcendent exception to this ecology.
Against the anthropological dualism of modern culture, Christian faith affirms our bodily state of creatureliness in all its vulnerability as something precious, not a liability to be overcome or even left behind by technology but to be stewarded in hope of redemption. Against this culture of “excarnation,” the church must as a public witness uphold the integrity of the Lord’s Supper as a koinonia in the body and blood of Christ: so Paul says we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Sustaining this witness is a particular obligation of our Lutheran confession, which has held to the bodily presence of Christ in the supper. You cannot transmit the body of Christ, which is (est, not significat) the loaf designated by Christ’s word of promise, “This is my body,” through fiber optic cable or Wi-Fi while the thought of transmitting the words of institution to households to multiple parties de facto spiritualize is, privatizes and probably also factionalizes the Lord’s Supper along class lines – as if all the congregation had access to Internet technology in their homes.
Of course, it is somewhat different with the ministry of the word, the public proclamation of the gospel, which can be communicated through the new media (though not in the personal form of the confessor’s “Ego te absolvo”). The origin of this essay on Facebook and the rich theological discussion it inspired there, is evidence enough of that medium. All the pastoral strategies to get the word out during this time through social media I emphatically affirm, as I participate in them myself, provided only that pastors remain responsible to confessional norms and accountable to the wider church. But that accountability entails the conviction that the sacramental sign of loaf and cup is not some accidental or arbitrary husk that can be shucked off to deliver the kernel of the word alone hidden within it. As the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth is essential to the incarnation of the Son of God, so the blessed bread and wine of the assembly are essential to the promise, “This is my body given for you.” Sacramental renewal in our lifetime, provided it remains the living expression of this Reformation theology of the incarnation, is a significant witness against our present culture of excarnation.
The second book is Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – And the Unexpected Solutions. This is a book I would urge every pastor to read because, like Elshtain, Hari argues against the pharmacological tendency toward separation of the thinking thing, the brain, from extended things, the social and physical environment. As a college professor I have watched in amazement in the last 20 years as a generation of young people has descended into a fog of anxiety and depression all the while striving to maintain the real utopianism of the modern self with its inflated ambitions, utterly disregarding all the negative signals they are getting from their own bodies. This psychology of excarnation is a clue to what I will be getting at when I argue that the proposal for virtual communion is not nearly radical enough pastorally.
What has this recommended reading to do with Eucharistic fasting during this time of the pandemic? As in divine love it is the glory of Christ to descend into our hands, into our mouths, into us who are bodies that he may bind us together with all the other bodies to whom he communicates himself, so it is Christian love, recognizing our organic solidarity of the common body of humanity (Romans 8), temporarily to refrain from the real Lord’s supper (and not to put out an ersatz Internet Lord’s Supper), can be and should be interpreted theologically as a sacrificial act of love for the sake of those most vulnerable to the contagion.
If we balk at this recommendation of fasting, I can imagine two different sources of resistance, one better than the other. First let’s discuss the aforementioned greedy individualism which permeates contemporary consciousness in neoliberal society. This greedy individualism is also the chief reason why we have become so allergic to the utterly biblical motif of the wrath of God manifesting in catastrophic events like famine and pestilence, which revisit our ecological sins back upon us. Indiscriminate rhetoric against “blaming the victim” – even when the inevitable consequences of socially irresponsible behavior befall us – keeps us tongue-tied when in fact theological interpretation of disaster like the current one matters immensely – and not for the cheesy purpose of defending God (theodicy) or the vicious purpose of scapegoating. When it is clear on the level of individual life that there is perpetrator and victim, of course it is morally obtuse to blame the victim for victimization. But this epidemic is not on the level of individual life, but of social life with its trans-individual forces.
So it is true that as an individual I do not get coronavirus because God is picking one out for special punishment; God is not Zeus casting thunderbolts upon the individuals who offend his ego or otherwise displease him. We have it on no less authority than Jesus according to whom the heavenly Father causes his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust like, who rebuked those who asked who sinned that one should be born blind. But the deeper truth which we learn from Old Testament Scripture especially is that, precisely as individuals, we do not exist solely or simply as individuals, but we flourish or decline individually as members bound organically to one another in the common body of creatures of the earth made for community, not isolation. The coronavirus contagion is a negative witness to the ineradicable social bond of us earthlings; it speaks painfully against the widespread American delusion that I am an island, a sovereign self who makes his own destiny, who can and must live alone, for me, myself and I. With the prophets of Israel, to promote such a serious self-examination along these lines is a precious opportunity given to us by the Eucharistic fast that has been imposed upon us.
A second source of resistance to the recommendation of Eucharistic fasting for this time is one with better roots in Lutheran tradition, namely, the deep commitment to pastoral care and the concern existentially to comfort and console – in this case especially those isolated by the contagion. I want to acknowledge this motive and underscore the freedom and responsibility of pastors to reach out to those excluded by the pandemic from the means of grace and find ways of delivering comfort and consolation. In an emergency, departures from normal practice may be justified in so far as they are not a pretext for undermining what is normative meant to set precedents for the future, which some advocates of virtual communion openly profess, seeking a decentralization of the sacrament and a declericalization of its service, that is to say a virtually Anabaptist ecclesiology. I’ll have more to say on this below.
But for the moment allow me a few further thoughts on the wrath of God. The correlate of the wrath of God theologically is the doctrine of Original Sin which articulates a social or corporate understanding of sinfulness, i.e. which does not focus exclusively or disproportionately on individual culpability but on sin as a power that has universally overtaken humanity such that our best civil or legal righteousness, such as it is, falls short of the glory of God. This corporate focus on sinfulness as a state of captivated being likewise recalibrates liberated personal virtue (the “new obedience” of the Augsburg Confession VI) as social responsibility, i.e. not oriented exclusively or disproportionately toward personal or moral excellence as an individual but rather to humble and loving service even of those undeserving of loving service. Paul thus makes the point that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of humanity and that it consists in God handing over humans to the consequences of their own sin. If we give this up genuinely radical diagnosis of the human predicament, we give up the prophetic indictment of humanity, the controversy of the Lord with his creation gone astray. And then the actual need for reconciliation in Christ is likewise undermined, as Luther argued against the antinomians.
It should be needless to say here, but it is precisely the individualistic and consumerist mentality which misunderstands of the social nature of sin and of divine wrath that has aided and abetted those fire and brimstone preachers who think they need to terrorize people into the kingdom of God, even certain Lutherans who think that the law must be preached until people are in a state of panic before the sweet gospel can be appreciated. I’ve certainly spent enough time in the pastoral ministry picking up the pieces of shattered souls recovering from such terroristic preaching. The deeper truth is that no one understands sinfulness or is concerned about divine wrath except those brought into reconciliation, for whom the favor of God is the sure foundation and not the uncertain goal of the Christian life.
In terms of theological method, contemporary resistance to the canonical teaching the wrath of God on human sinfulness shows us that there are those who insist that the Bible be filtered by the philosophical tradition of the apathy of God. But Lutherans belong to the camp which thinks to the contrary that it is the philosophical tradition of the apathy of God that must be critiqued and reformed by the Bible which gives us the God of love whose love is against what is against love. That’s what wrath is, not an offended, egotistical fit of hate as folks imagine both on the left and on the right, but divine creative love militantly negating our lovelessness, indifference, even the apathy which we make an idol of. Of course this event of God being against us should make us nervous! But it serves to drive us to Christ – that is, if we have a Christ big enough to conquer for us even the wrath of God – which is exactly what Paul’s gospel teaches in its earliest iteration, as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. The “dramatic coherence,” as the late Robert Jenson Jenson would have put it, of biblical narrative tells of how God in Christ surpasses the wrath of his love to triumph for the mercy of it for us and for all. And this is the real and radical pastoral comfort and consolation which meets people in the actual terror of isolation and abandonment under the powers of sin and death.
How little, I fear, this gospel drama is proclaimed in its truth and purity in today’s churches! We get instead pious protestations of the hiddenness of God mysteriously distant from real life while we experience every day the powers of sin and death overwhelming us. We get vague and sentimental affirmations of a nice and loving divine parent disconnected from our on-the-earth reality. Someday this pandemic will fade away. Maybe people will even return to church to hear a word from God about this catastrophe. But if they hear nothing that they cannot already tell themselves they will have no good reason ever to return.
Now to return to virtual communion and the recommendation for Eucharistic fasting during this divine judgment on our social greed. Let’s take an exemplary proponent, Lutheran theologian Prof. Deanna Thompson, who is now at St. Olaf College. She is a personally credible interlocutor on the question of “virtual” ministry, as she writes out of her excruciating experience of life-threatening cancer in the prime of life. She’s published a book, The Virtual Body of Christ, in which she makes the case for employing the new social media technologies just as the Lutheran Reformation employed the Gutenberg press. I agree with much of this, as I said above. Nevertheless, I respectfully and yet sharply disagree with her urging in the present pandemic crisis that people at home should set up bread and wine, as if to participate via the Internet in the live streaming of the Lord’s Supper liturgy. As I’ve listened and pondered the arguments being made in favor of this proposal, I have come to a certain realization which I would like briefly to argue here.
Let me begin, by affirming that Christ is “really” in the preached word which can be conveyed through these media. He is really present to offer himself in his righteousness, life and peace for the auditor’s sin, death and disease. Long ago, however, I discovered that in the Lutheran confessional writings what was at stake was never this so-called “real” presence but rather the “bodily” presence of Jesus Christ according to his word and promise. What difference does this apparently subtle distinction make? Answer: historically it excluded the so-called “spiritual” (or “real”) presence as the specific blessing or benefit of the Lord’s Supper just as it excludes notions of “invisible” church as the “real” church as opposed to the visible assembly gathered around Word and sacrament. By the Holy Spirit the word of the gospel awakens faith and if we want to speak of “spiritual presence,” we are talking about this ministry of the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus Christ “real” to us. But what differentiates the Lord’s Supper is the promised presence of Jesus Christ personally in his own body-and-blood, so that the blessing is not merely privative, the forgiveness of sins, but also positive: life and salvation on account of this specific union with Christ that consists in physical eating and drinking in the common meal of the Lord.
Why does this specificity of Jesus’ bodily presence matter? For one thing, it concerns the identity of Jesus Christ as the very body born of Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate but vindicated and exalted to be present in his glorified body for the gathering of his faithful. This act of identification is precisely what the Lord’s Supper liturgy depends on, the specific act in the gathering as the church when a specific loaf is picked out with the words, “this is my body given for you.” As already the early church father Ignatius of Antioch discerned, Christological docetism and Gnostic spirituality are sneaking in whenever this specific act of identification of Jesus Christ in the flesh to give his flesh for us is compromised. “Mark those who hold strange doctrines concerning the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us, how that they are contrary to the mind of God. They have no care for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, nor the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they do not allow that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness raised up.”(Smynians 6). The citation makes abundantly clear the present proposal for Eucharistic fasting recognizes the virus as something we have not chosen but rather something imposed upon us. It is not the abstinence of the ancient docetists, who disbelieve or disregard Jesus’s promise. It is just because we do believe Jesus gives his body for us here as promised that abstinence under this circumstance can and should be regarded as a sacrificial act of love for others, a genuine expression of the body of Christ in an emergency situation.
The broader point is that a vague notion of “real” presence evaporates the concrete promise and its intended audience; it is a de facto spiritualizing of the Lord’s Supper to accommodate an individualistic and consumeristic need for private assurance – a capitalist version of the “private mass” which the Augsburg Confession vigorously repudiates. Of course, Christ can be present anywhere and everywhere i.e. without the Lord’s Supper, but as Luther explained, “it is one thing for God to be present and another thing for God to be present for you.” God is present “for us” as the body of Christ given for us specifically and concretely according to Christ’s last will and testament. In obedience to the mandate that we do this in remembrance of him, we remember him precisely in this way as the one crucified and risen for us in his own body when we gather, many bodies as the one body.
What we need in this period of pandemic and Eucharistic fasting which has now been on imposed upon us is not a jerryrigged communion through the Internet but rather sober self-examination of all the ways in which we have accommodated the Christian faith to the greedy individualism of the modern culture of the sovereign self. It should be a time of prayer, fasting and repentance which reminds us that there is no risen Christ who does not remain forever the crucified one. I don’t wish to gainsay the genuine pastoral concern of Deanna and other lesser lights in her camp, but I don’t think the solution posed is nearly radical enough for our situation and comes at the cost of the integrity of the Lord’s Supper as the bodily presence of Christ for his gathered people making them his one body.
What should deeply disturb us in our poisonous culture of politics by denunciation, which I decline to participate in, is the baseline appeal of return to normalcy, whether the normalcy preferred is that of the pre-Trump Obama era or the pre-pandemic Trump economy. Our superficial politics seems incapable of grasping the profoundly disruptive implications of the pandemic. The entire modern epoch, and the global civilization we have built upon it, is based upon the post-Christian doctrine of the sovereign human self, according to which thinking things achieve mastery over extended, i.e. physical things. Spectacular successes of this project in science and technology have helped us build a complex and multi-layered global civilization based upon energy networks, transportation networks, communication networks, food networks, military-security alliances, and so on. What the pandemic exposes is the deep fragility of this house of cards, where the collapse of any one of these networks threatens to chain react catastrophically on all the others. This catastrophe portends the “urban apocalypse” which occupies the dark fantasies of video games.
Our cultural accommodation to this modern civilization has been to accept the dualism between thinking things and physical things to such an extent that we commoditize our own bodies as interchangeable cogs in a vast machine, fetching whatever price the market can bear for their service. We have been willing to make this bargain with the devil, drudgery in exchange for goodies (see the book by Johann Hari!), because it promised us sufficient wealth and personal security to make the best of our own physical beings. Now the pandemic threatens to break the deal. This is the real deep anxiety running through our civilization and radical pastoral care will expose this anxiety of a faithless generation in the light of the Lord’s prophetic controversy with his creation gone astray and so deeply in need of reconciliation. Whether or not this pandemic produces an urban apocalypse, no one can say. I certainly hope not and pray not. But however it turns out, it should be interpreted theologically as a warning. That is why I say more of the same dualistic game – virtual communion – is no solution but rather an evasion, hence not nearly radical enough.
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Virginia, where he previously held the Jordan-Trexler Professorship of Religion and Phiolosophy. He also teaches part-time for the Institute of Lutheran Theology. He is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has served several congregations throughout his career.