Eucharistic Fast – reasons to be thankful?
Here I am summarising and commenting on Thomas O’Loughlin’s article ‘Open new doors to prayer’, The Tablet vol 274 No. 9345, 28th March 2020.
The fact that many regular Massgoers will not be in church this weekend, or even over Easter, might actually help us to broaden our understanding of the Eucharist and deepen our spirituality. O’Loughlin’s stance, with which I agree, is that for too long (possibly as far back as the 7th century) Latin Christians have tended to think about the Eucharist as an object (something that happens due to the activity of the priest, which the lay faithful observe rather like the audience at a play or concert), or as a commodity (with those present behaving as religious consumers). This is flagged up by the language we unconsciously use: we ‘go to Mass’ and ‘take Communion’. The image in our minds is that the Eucharist is something ‘out there’ which we watch, or obtain and make our own, as if we were an audience or consumers. But the word ‘Eucharist’ relates to a verb: it is something that we do. It is the activity of thanking God as a gathered community, and precisely in so doing realising our identity as Christ’s body. The focus is on thanking the Father, and access to the Father is provided to us in the Spirit through Jesus Christ – and the prayers are led by the priest. It is our basic activity as Christians – not some ‘thing’ that the priest does for us or makes for us.
So, if we cannot gather because of the coronavirus can we still offer thanks to the Father through Christ? Yes, because: Jesus is present with us. The presence of the risen Jesus in the community is captured in this saying preserved in Matthew’s gospel ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (18:20). Even two people a safe two metres apart, or talking on Skype, have the risen Lord among them.
Being in our room alone is a basic place of prayer, as we heard in the gospel that began this Lent on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:5-6). Even alone, we know the Father will listen to our prayers. We describe the Eucharist as ‘ the source and summit of our Christian lives’, which is of course true, but we often make the mistake of regarding it as the whole of our Christian lives. This crisis calls on us to build up the surrounding foothills, by caring for one another and thanking God at home as well as in church. If we are not thankful for the meals and friendship we share at home, we are hardly ready to be thankful at the Great Thanksgiving that we call the Eucharist; which reminds us that every table is a sacred place. Jesus encountered people and taught at their tables, sharing their lives: every table is a place where we can encounter the Lord in those with us. We will not be eating together as sisters and brothers in a church in the next few months, so we need to recall that whenever we eat we should be thankful. We can express this by relearning how to say grace before meals (being thankful for the food) and after (for the pleasure of eating and being together).
Some have been tempted to reach for the idea of ‘spiritual communion’ as a sort of ‘fix’ in this emergency. While there is nothing wrong with this (I attach a prayer for making spiritual communion below), it may be better to simply acknowledge that this is a weird time – we are temporarily, for very good reasons, unable to behave in the normal human way. So also we cannot either behave in a liturgically normal way. Until we can get back to normal, it may be preferable just to note its loss, concentrate on what we can do when living in isolation from one another, then, when restrictions are lifted, rejoice that our fellowship is restored.
For we are the Church, who must be eucharistic every day – thankful for all the good things of creation, particularly meals and loving fellowship, and confident that the risen one is with us, interceding for us with the Father in this time of crisis.
From The Heart in Pilgrimage, a Prayer Book for Catholic Christians, ed Eamon Duffy:
An act of spiritual communion for anyone unable to receive the sacrament:-
Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most holy sacrament of the altar. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you, body and blood, soul and divinity. Since I cannot at this time receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you or from the community of your church, and lead me with all your holy people to your banquet in heaven. Amen.