Communion Beyond the Eucharist in Pandemic Time

by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov | ελληνικά

Two people huddled on a bench

As everyone ponders their particular and usual roles, during the pandemic, ministers of Church rites strive to creatively answer their specific charge to assemble the faithful and execute time-worn rituals, so that communion, as we understand it, remains uninterrupted.  In light of this new normal, however short-lived, perhaps now is the time to reflect on the fact that the rhythm of celebrations has long ceased to nurture society’s Nones. Rarely do we ask how we are to feed them as they move away from the liturgical life; rather, we sense a kind of fear that if the rhythm stopped, communion would cease altogether. But is communion limited to the Eucharist? And is not the purpose of the Eucharist itself to reveal the very essence and goal of all of life as communion?

Perhaps because I have been marked by the indelible teaching of Father Alexander Schmemann, my own answer lies in one of his favorite, yet today obscure, terms: Eschatology! What answer does this term provide in pandemic time? No, eschatology is not the science of “future things.” It is rather, the conviction that the “kingdom” present beyond the confines of time and space, that kingdom, has been made present in our midst by Christ. It is not some imaginary future reward, but the timeless Reality of God permeating time-bound creation. In earthly time, at a precise hour on a Sunday morning, we enter into that kingdom “time” that lifts us above the earthly hour into the Hour of our Lord which has come (“Now my Hour has come!”). Standing in that timeless time, we offer the Liturgy “on behalf of all and for all.”

In 1947, one of Fr. Schmemann’s teachers in Paris, writes in Evharistia these words about this aspect of time in the Liturgy:

“In the Eucharistic anamnesis, the boundaries of the past, present, and future are erased.  The rational and bloodless service of the Eucharist is outside of time, not subordinate to the law of our sensory perception and our logic.  We remember the future in our liturgy.  Just as the prophets of the Old Testament were not bound by these aspects of time, … they used the grammatical form of the past tense speaking about future events that were only dawning, but as if they had already been completed, so the New Testament theurgist recalls in the Eucharistic offering not only the past (suffering, death, resurrection and ascension) but also the future second coming and judgment.  The liturgy is eternal.” (Cyprian Kern, Evharistia, YMCA Press, Paris, 1947, p.231)

What does this mean for us today? The Church is not a priest on one side of a screen doing something prescribed for the people on the other. It means rather that the whole gathered Church is the priest and her congregation is the world, which “God so loved!” The so-called Nones are spiritually in our liturgy because we offer it on their behalf, while we confess our sins or the circumstances that have alienated them from being physically in our gatherings.

Does Christ appear only in bread and wine after we say the “right” words, or is He not the One who gathers us in the first place, even before we open our mouths? Before consecrating the Gifts, at his sermon the celebrant greets the faithful: “Christ is in our midst!” Do we believe it or not? And at the consecration when we ask for a “change” to take place, our plea is for the Holy Spirit to change us. We offer one another up to God so that the Holy Spirit can make of us a New Creation, going out from our gathering more and richer in spirit and mind than when we came in. Think not only of the Nones but of many others who, for myriad reasons, cannot directly taste this Meal. A pilgrim once asked: “How did the native people in Alaska, cared for by St.Herman, receive communion since he was not a priest?” The answer came from a pastor’s wife: “He, St.Herman himself, was their communion!”

Some pastors collect and modify specific prayers from the larger Tradition to be used by the faithful gathered in the virtual arena. These variants are commendable, but the late Father Roman Braga asks: “If the apostle Paul directs all the faithful towards ceaseless prayer, how can a working mother fulfill the apostle’s counsel?” And Fr. Braga answers his own question: “As she makes lunch for her child, it is enough for her to say—‘Look, Lord, I am making a ham sandwich for my beloved child!’ And that is part of her ‘ceaseless prayer’!” For the monk it takes another form, for an artist it may be in the lines, shapes and colors on her canvas, and for a soldier yet his own. Thus, prayer remains uninterrupted by what Schmemann called otnesyenost’, the innate referral of all our thoughts and actions to God.

What is the motivation for the efforts at continuing physical communion? Is it not the same movement of faith by which the woman with her flow of blood touches the hem of Christ’s garment? The physical matter of the world becomes pigments on icons, wood for altars and crosses, cotton and silk for bright vestments, wine and bread for Christ’s human body, and so on. But the ultimate sacred matter is the human being standing right in front of me in any place at any time, bearing in herself the timeless image of God. The liturgical lifting up of “sacred matter” must now become the lifting of the lonely sister in the hidden precincts of our own little worlds.

At the last liturgical gathering when each of us was able to receive the actual Holy Gifts, we were told to depart in peace, and to BE communion for the world. That command has not expired, and remains our daily work until we gather again at liturgy, whenever that timeless Hour once more dawns for us in time. Meanwhile and forever: Christ is in our midst!

Fr. Alexis Vinogradov is Retired Rector (1978-2015) of St. Gregory Theologian Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, NY.