Reimagining the Eucharist

reimagining eucharist

“All Masses Cancelled.”

That sign went up today outside my local church.

Who could have imagined it just a couple of weeks ago? Most Catholics recognise it’s a sensible decision: large gatherings are just what we do not want at the moment.

The loving thing right now is to keep our distance, lest we transmit the virus.

There are those who do not like the idea of “missing Mass”.

Could they “get Mass”, they ask anxiously, even if they are not able to be physically present at a service?

I have heard priests saying that they will not have “the state” – imagined as somehow the enemy of the Church – ordering them to close, and talking of “defending the freedom of religion” by “providing Mass”, even though it would be endangering the very people they are claiming to serve.

But the fact that many regular Massgoers will not be in a church this weekend – and most likely not even over Easter – might actually help us to broaden our understanding of the Eucharist and deepen our spirituality.

For too long – some historians would say since the seventh 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 a concert) or as a commodity (with those present behaving as religious consumers).

The language we use is the giveaway.

We talk about “getting Mass” and “attending a Mass”, of “getting Communion” and “taking Communion”.

The image in our minds is that the Eucharist is something “out there”, which we watch or somehow obtain and make our own, as if we were theatregoers or consumers.

But the word “Eucharist” relates to a verb: it is something we, the whole People of God, do.

It is the activity of thanking God the Father as a gathered community – and we offer this praise and thanks through Christ our Lord.

The focus is on thanking the Father.

The 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? Let’s relearn some basics.

Jesus is present with us

Many Catholics treat church buildings as if they were pagan temples: as if God is only “in there”.

But God’s presence is everywhere and the risen Christ is not limited by space.

This presence of the risen Jesus among 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 the smallest gathering – just two people standing two metres apart so as not to spread the virus – has the risen Lord among them.

It might be two people in a house together; it might even be two people talking together on their mobile phones or on Skype.

This is expressed in another ancient Christian saying – preserved in the Didache (a first-century new disciples’ guide): “Wherever the things of the Lord are spoken about, there the Lord is present” (4:1).

Your room is a basic place of prayer

We sometimes think that we are only commanded to pray in a church building – we have grown up with the idea of attendance at Mass on Sunday as a regulation – but it is sobering to recall this instruction by Jesus: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the gatherings and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

We are now being advised not to go to work or use public transport, not to attend church services and to keep our distance from people.

It’s a moment for us to rediscover the art of closing the door and praying alone – knowing that the Father will listen to our prayers.

Eucharist is “the centre and summit of our Christian lives”

We describe the Eucharist as “the centre and summit of our Christian lives”, which is true, but we often make the mistake of regarding it as the whole of our religious life. Continue reading

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