It was a 10-hour car ride to reach our vacation destination, and I was going through some habitual motion of my pre-pandemic self: searching for the local Episcopal church to attend. I reached the website on my phone, and here was the notice about online Sunday services, yes, the various ways I could spend more time at these accursed screens I was vacating from; I sighed and scrolled and then — do mine eyes deceive me? — a service of Eucharist. In-person! Outdoors! On the very next day! Did my fingers literally tremble with excitement as I fired off an email to get on whatever list, sign whatever waiver I needed to, my heart hardly daring to believe that this might be real? I would never admit that.
The story ends sadly. The response came too late the next day: I was welcome, but it was BYOBW — “bring your own bread and wine.” I had neither, and service started in 30 minutes.
Would I have gone if I had packed bread and wine in our traveling cooler? Doubtful. It’s not a question of materials, as though it were possible to have any fondness for styrofoam wafers (though I will argue that Taylor Port is the taste of God.) It’s a question of community. Indeed, when the Eucharist began to be practiced in the early days of Christianity, people would bring their bread and wine from their own homes. It would be brought to the altar in the same way the offerings of money or other food would be — to be blessed on behalf of the entire community, and divided among it. Bringing my own bread and wine for personal use was like bringing a checkbook and then writing out a donation to myself.
Now, I preached a sermon about live-streaming Eucharist, and to re-cap, I was against it so long as our doors were closed. The new argument out in Episco-world (for all five of you who care) now concerns virtual Eucharist. This is not simply watching the Eucharist on your screen and feeling the comfort of the rite, but involves having your own bread and wine at home and having the priest zap the blessing through the screen to your elements.
They say preachers only have one sermon that they give over and over, and I’d guess mine is about our faith being a bodily one. Incarnation, we call it, a belief that stands in direct opposition to the creeping Platonism which got hold of some strands of Christianity early on: namely, the platonic understanding of the world in dualistic terms of body and spirit, the latter being good and pure and godly, and the former being rank and decaying and disposable. Christianity, and our Jewish ancestors, rejected this false divide.
We teach that a sacrament is both physical and spiritual. Bodies really must be present. Moreover, we teach that sacraments are not private, individualistic experiences, but communal ones; e.g, you can’t even get married without having some outside party there to promise they’ll uphold you in the promises you’ve made. And honestly, I hear no pro-virtual-Eucharist types calling for virtual baptism — a Zoom call with parents splashing virtually blessed water on a baby while a priest virtually prays (only after the bishop virtually consecrates the bottle of olive of oil in the pantry for chrism, of course.) What’s the difference? Only our (very understandable) desire for the comfort of the Eucharist. But our desire for comfort shouldn’t compromise the very foundation we stand on as Christians.
So, I go without rather than take part in a sterile, safe mimicry of the true and bodily event. God knows I miss it. Every time I’ve eaten a meal prepared by a restaurant, or had food brought to my table, or even picked up groceries that have gone through different hands and sat in a public space where people have continued in that troublesome habit of breathing, I’ve thought of the Eucharist and mourned. Instead of a priest handing me a wafer that day on vacation, a waitress handed me a plate of Bang Bang shrimp for lunch. Some stories do end sadly.