As the Covid pandemic was upon us all, on the first Sunday in Advent, 2020, University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, MA began to offer a Zoom Eucharist. A what? Martin Luther must have groaned in his grave. But, mirabile dictu, it worked (to use one of my more sophisticated theological expressions). An emergency solution somehow became the real thing.
Picture this: my wife, Laurel, and me sitting alone in our living room on a Sunday morning, with a computer in front of us on our living room table and, next to the computer, a lovely blue clay chalice and paten (plate), from my collection of twenty-two. I had filled the blue chalice with table wine from the gallon jug in our kitchen and Laurel had placed a small loaf of homemade bread on the paten. We had printed out the bulletin for the Liturgy. We were ready.
Now for the familiar, pre-Covid gathered Eucharist, as has been common in the practices of my own mainline Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the priest consecrates all the wine and all the bread on the Table, not just the wine in the chalice and the bread on the paten. Everything is consecrated. What then about the many tables, like ours, and the many cups and plates, involved in this Eucharist?
In the past, the literal distance from the wine and the bread in and on the chalice and the paten, on the one hand, and the bread and the wine in the basket and the pitcher, also on the Table, was about four feet. Yet that was no obstacle. All the elements on the altar were consecrated.
But what’s so sacred about four feet? What if there’s fourteen miles between the elements in front of the priest at the Table and the other elements, such as those on our living room table? Can God only handle four feet and not fourteen miles?
Likewise for the people gathered. Yes, there is one bread, one body. But note that, typically, the priest and the Eucharistic ministers are in the chancel and most of the people may be, say, fifty feet away in the nave. But what if some people are 50 miles away? Are they any less a part of the one body because of that?
And the people participating in the Zoom Eucharist can see the liturgical actions at and around the Table quite well on their screens, perhaps even more clearly than is the case for a gathered Eucharist (Is this the birth of a new terminology? Gathered and scattered Eucharists?)
Arguably, traditional Eucharistic proximity wants to be the norm. Among other things, it’s great to exchange the Hug of Peace and to see each other and to hear each other’s voices. The Church, after all, is an embodied community called to gather around the Table. But who am I to say that God can’t handle Eucharistic distance, when all the other essentials are there? Aren’t we all still gathering around the Table, however distanced we might be, even as most of us gather around our own tables at home? (Zoom even allows you to see other faces in the congregation…)
And bodily proximity? Think about the longstanding practice of the priest taking the elements from the altar out into the nave to persons who are unable to make their way from the pews, up the stairs, to the altar. Aren’t those people just as much a part of the Body as those who were able to come forward?
And the one Cup? Great symbolism. Essential, surely. But in larger congregations there’s almost always more than one cup, in practice. So what difference does it make when there are, say, not just four different chalices on the altar, but 150 additional chalices scattered all over the Boston area – and even around the world – on tables like ours?
Then there’s the singing: Laurel and I in our living room can robustly sing the Preface and the Agnus Dei and the Sanctus and the hymns with the whole congregation. True, we don’t hear the other hundred voices or so, but we do hear the cantor and join in with him or her, knowing that others are doing the same. We suspect that our neighbors in our condominium building can sometimes hear us singing our hearts out, on the other side of the wall between our apartments. And surely the Lord hears all the songs of all the faithful, however separated geographically they might be from one another.
A Divine perk. As I noted, Laurel makes the Communion bread. It’s a very small loaf, but it’s sizeable enough. So, as a matter of course, she and I eat all the remaining bread and drink all the remaining wine once the Mass is ended, as priests and other officiants do following most gathered Eucharists. (Homemade bread with wine, Lord. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.)
Is this Zoom Eucharist during a pandemic for real, then? I believe that it is, rawly speaking.