1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Advent 3, December 13, 2020
St. Martin, North Vancouver
Holy One, feed us with your abiding presence, that we may know the joy of the hope to which you have called us, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
“Feeding on Joy”
I don’t know what the cat is living on. He’s a finicky eater. His owner left instructions and a careful schedule of meals, but when he gets his prescribed supper he looks at us disdainfully and walks away from the bowl. Sometimes I will come into the kitchen in the morning and find the evidence that he has nibbled, but the rest of the time he might well be surviving on dust bunnies and the occasional crumb. Yet he seems to be lively and affectionate and none the worse for wear so far. Apparently there’s more to this than he is letting on.
The cat chooses not to eat; we didn’t choose not be able to come to the table together. Families are not able to share holiday suppers in the ways they would like. And churches are not able to share the eucharist in the way that is our common Christian practice. Both types of fasting are deeply grieved. Many of us are struggling to find ways to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually as communities when we restricted from physically gathering. Those who were blessed in pre-pandemic times to be part of a wider circle of relations and/or a community of faith have come to realize the losses keenly. Perhaps in the process some are gaining a better understanding of neighbours who were isolated through infirmity or ability from full participation even before this season of lock-downs. For those who live alone and those who cannot come to a Sunday service or a family meal, recent times have shrunk the world even further. How does God feed us when we are not able to eat with each other?
Some in the Anglican communion have called for a eucharistic fast. That is, we should cease from celebrating communion altogether until such a time as the full community can participate physically in this sacrament. Others have suggested that people bring bread and wine to their computer screens and witness a virtual communion before taking the tokens in their hands and consuming them at home. Both approaches focus on the physical elements of the bread and the wine: the outer and tangible signs of the inward and spiritual grace that is holy communion. I don’t believe either practice gets at the heart of what is meant by this sacrament.
If we were to completely stop having communion until the buildings are open and we can gather again, it seems to me that we are discounting the lived experience and spirituality of many in our world who have not had regular access to communion in the past. How often do seniors in care facilities receive the reserve sacrament from their parish? What about smaller, remote, and First Nations communities who do not have a priest resident, and come together around non-eucharistic worship? Even after it will be safe for smaller, then larger groups of Christians to meet again, not everyone will be physically present. And of those who are, not everyone will receive communion. If we stop until all eat, none will.
On the other hand, bread doesn’t get any more blessed through electronic means than when we say grace at a meal. It is good to give thanks and to eat and drink with each other, even when it happens by Skype or Zoom or Facetime. The Agapé gathering at St. Martin’s is modeled on the early Christians’ experience of coming together in love and fellowship to share food as a sign of the open table of community. So it seems to me there is more to the experience of the rite than just having a priest standing up front and the rest of us taking bread in one’s hands.
At its core, the Eucharist is both a sign of the particular community gathered around Christ and Christ’s deep pastoral response to that community. God’s reality breaks into our world in mundane elements that carry the joyful message of sacrificial love. But that spiritual reality is not dependent on bread or wine alone as the body and blood of Christ. The body of Christ is situated in the people that are connected through faith. The Host enters us. This is the “Great Thanksgiving”- the eu-charist. We practice together what it means to be the channel of God’s grace in the world. We are sanctified- made holy- through our connection to the divine.
In 1941, the poet W. H. Auden wrote “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” during the dark days of the Second World War. In the midst of deprivation and depression, he penned these lines:
“The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all…
The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing.”
Sanctification is the process of practising rejoicing, even- especially- in the midst of trying times. St. Paul writes to a little community of Christians in Greece experiencing their own troubles. He tells them: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). His encouragement to do the good they can comes with the following blessing: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Like a musician that needs to daily attend to the basics of warming up and keep the voice and fingers nimble to play, we too are to practice giving thanks. One of the consistent and helpful ways that we know as Christians is in the celebration of holy communion. There we find not only physical food, but spiritual joy.
In observing the eucharist we look back to its institution when Jesus gathered around the table with his disciples. We look forward to the day when Christ will come again and the reign of God will be celebrated fully with all of the saints at the heavenly banquet. But now, in this “Time Being”, as Auden puts it, God comes to us as we practice thanksgiving and sacrifice and even joy. It is not so much about eating the bread and tasting the wine as it is feasting on Christ’s presence in the middle of the circle. Does this mean that we need to have an online service of holy communion in order to connect with the Holy? I don’t believe it does.
But if this virtual eucharist remains a helpful tool to gather us and sustain us spiritually, let us feed on it joyfully. As long as it is offered on behalf of the community and in thanksgiving for our ongoing life together in Christ, and not as a privileged service for a few, then it remains a pastoral and liturgical gift. Through it we pray for and with the world in all its brokenness and beauty. And we are sometimes pierced with joy in the mystery of it all.
But let’s not confine our experience of spiritual communion to this one sacrament of the Church. We are fed by all the ways that God comes among us: in the prayers, in Holy Scripture, in loving action and generous sharing. All convey the joy of a people that faces reality with hope. Joy is not the same as happiness or contentment or security. It is the flash of insight, the leap of the heart that recognizes the real presence of Christ.
When we come to the prayer of consecration, symbols of bread and wine will be lifted high in blessing and thanksgiving by the priest. But we are truly feasting on the Word made flesh, come among us. Rejoice! Amen.
If you would like to explore more about Eucharistic practice and sacramental theology, try
for some reflections by Canadian and international Anglicans.