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The People’s Pandemic Eucharist

The pandemic has tipped the playing field of society further askew than it already was.  The disease itself is devastating low-income and minority people at an alarming rate.  Those like myself, privileged enough to be able to work from home, sit pretty while the farmworkers who harvest the citrus groves just down the road from my home arrive at work in crowded vans that are petri dishes for the virus.

But in other ways, the virus has leveled the playing field as never before. Now, “high churches” and “low churches”, big churches and small ones, are digitally eyeball-to-eyeball.   Gone are the smells and bells and processions.  And online megachurch worship looks downright silly without crowds of the faithful waving their arms to praise songs.  Small, intimate congregations are thriving on Zoom:  if you get too many people in online worship, the images of the parishioners get too small to see on the screen!  Online, a small church can maintain almost the same level of “production values” as a big one.  And anybody from anywhere can show up to swell the ranks.  The little church where I’m a member, Mt Hollywood Congregational UCC in Los Angeles, is getting Zoom visitors from all around the country.

Such are the practical changes resulting from the coronavirus crisis.  But there is at least one theological consequence, as well.  Catholic priests and bishops are in anguish at their inability to perform the most essential of their rites – the blessing and distribution of the bread and wine of the eucharist.  It is as if the body of Christ, as understood in Catholic dogma, has been put in a deep freeze, its lifeblood immobilized.  Protestants are conducting communion online by having parishioners provide their own elements.  On the books, many Protestant denominations require that only ordained pastors can preside over the Lord’s Supper.  But that rule gets Zoomed thin as parishioners are creative at home, using all sorts of edibles and beverages in place of the bread and wine.

The elements have escaped the altar.  The eucharist is becoming the sacrament of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Our present liturgical moment reminds me of the one in which the Jesuit Catholic priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, found himself as World War 2 broke out in Europe and Asia while he was doing field work in Mongolia.  As a priest he was required to perform the eucharist every day.  But the elements of bread and wine did not exist in that austere land.  He could flee neither to the west nor to the east.  His isolation led him to write The Mass on the World, in which he blessed the earth and the cosmos beyond as the incarnated Christ:

“I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar – I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world. Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits. My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day….”

It was this sort of panentheistic utterance that got Teilhard into trouble with his superiors in the Church, who for a time banned him from publishing.  Nothing like censorship for increasing an author’s popularity, however: when the ban was lifted, his books became a sensation.  Just as he played loose with the eucharist in the Gobi Desert, his writings liberated his readers from the confines of dogma with his vision of a Christ inseparable from the unfolding of the cosmos.  By naturalizing the faith, he also democratized it, making it accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Covid-19 has separated us from our officially-sanctioned holy places and sacred things.  The members of our church in Los Angeles yearn to get back to our beloved worship space.  But we are seizing this opportunity to turn the church inside out.  We are finding the sacred in the relationships we maintain with each other on computer screens, in the elements of communion we assemble from donuts and crackers and orange juice and coffee, and in the urban, indoor, and natural environments that have become our sanctuaries.  We are taking the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” more seriously than ever – out of necessity.  We are conducting our own masses on the world.

And integral to our blown-open, democratic, trans-clerical celebration of the eucharist is to make it real in the structures of society around us.  The pandemic turned our churches and temples and mosques upside down.  And the unacceptable injustices in the world around us have become worse than ever.  So let religious people take this opportunity to turn the world upside down, for the better. Let there be a eucharistic health care system.  Eucharistic housing policies.  Eucharistic environmental policies. Eucharistic economics.  We’re saying our own words of institution, using oatmeal cookies as communion bread.  Why stop there?  Let us consecrate our votes in the upcoming election as elements of holy communion:
Deeper Love: A Song for Communion

For deeper love we spread the bread
I won’t be full till all are fed
Till every soul has home and bed
The rest of us can’t move ahead
For deeper love we share the wine
I cannot taste the love divine
Till every soul has walked the line
And you’ve had yours like I’ve had mine
Now Mary sings her birthing song
Till every voice can sing along
And voices weak will rise up strong
Her choir is one where all belong
No one is saved till all are healed
As Jesus on the Mount revealed
Your life and mine forever sealed
Just like the lilies of the field
We follow where the Christ has led
To table that for all is spread
And no one’s sitting at the head
But deeper love in wine and bread
By Jim Burklo  (Use freely, with attribution)

Tune: O Waly Waly (Welsh folk tune)  — also known as The Water Is Wide 

(listen to James Taylor’s performance of it)
“Stay Home, Stay Home” – Video of Roberta and I singing our “hymn” for social distancing and wearing masks —
Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings
Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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