I was supposed to preach Sunday. I was getting over a cold. Love of neighbor meant I needed to tell the pastor who invited me in case he wanted to cancel. He still wanted me to come.
Still, I told the congregation I wouldn’t be shaking hands. They didn’t want to catch what I’d had — though really, it was just a cold.
I bumped some elbows. We smiled, and we laughed. The laughter was a little anxious. This is the era of the “Novel Coronavirus,” a.k.a. “COVID-19.”
In the church my family usually attends, “passing the peace” is a very big deal — usually. Now it’s elbow bumps and waves, and that anxious laughter.
Not touching is culturally awkward. We shake hands without thinking, much of the time. It’s hard to remember, in the season of the Coronavirus, that keeping social distance is a matter of public health.
That is, we don’t shake hands, not out of fear of being infected, but out of love for our neighbor. We are doing our part to try to protect everybody.
The Lord’s Supper and the Coronavirus
But it’s really a much bigger issue when it comes to Communion — you may call it the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist. This shared bread, and shared wine (or, alas, in my Presbyterian circles, grape juice) is something Jesus gave us, and commanded us to celebrate.
What do we do about The Lord’s Supper and the Coronavirus?
Most of Christianity has the Eucharist every Sunday. What do we do when sharing food, and distributing it by hand, seems to be a public health risk?
My mother attends an Episcopal church in the Pacific Northwest. Episcopalians usually have the consecrated wine in a “common cup.” That is, the priest prays and says the sacred words of the liturgy over one cup of wine, and then, person by person, all take a sip.
I suspect at a directive of their bishop, yesterday they didn’t have the common cup.
As usual, they each received a wafer the consecrated bread, given with the holy words, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, keep you in everlasting life,” or “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”
And that was it. No chalice followed. No more holy words, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
Is Receiving Just the Bread Only Half a Sacrament?
I suspect that some Christians in the time of the coronavirus find themselves wondering if they only got half of the sacrament. If “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving,” does this mean we’re only half-thankful?
Back in the Reformation, we Protestants made a very big deal of the need to receive both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine. We objected to the medieval Roman Catholic practice of giving the bread to all, but allowing only the clergy to drink from the cup.
And we had a point, as to general practice. It was, as Luther pointed out, the cup, and not the bread, about which Christ was particularly pointed, saying
Drink this, all of you.
But despite Protestant polemics, there was some very helpful theological reasoning on this point well before Luther and Calvin.
Thomas Aquinas, O.P.
Enter St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest and most influential of the medieval scholastic theologians. A lot of Protestants are just informed enough to dismiss St. Thomas. The Reformers loved to deride the “schoolmen” and their tightly reasoned logical theological systems.
They especially tended to dismiss the scholastics because they created theological arguments for things Protestants didn’t think could be supported by our beloved Bible.
There is, however, a vast amount to learn from Thomas Aquinas. He was smarter than me, that’s for sure. I’d wager he was smarter than you too. And he knew his Bible. And he knew the teachings of the greatest Christian thinkers who came in the 1200 years before him.
Thomas may have come to a number of views about the Eucharist that my Protestant colleagues are never going to buy. Still, I would argue that he is worth listening to on many, many points — including on the Lord’s Supper in the time of the Coronavirus.
(If my former students read this, now they’ll know why I made them read St Thomas’ Summa Theologica, Third Part, Questions 75, 76, 79, and 80.)
You see, Thomas lived in those middle ages when Christians as a general practice were given only the consecrated bread. He too had to deal with the question of whether people were given an incomplete sacrament.
For Thomas, and for Catholicism, it was a question of the real presence of Christ. Once consecrated, the bread and wine were understood to truly be the body and blood of Christ — no matter how much they still looked and tasted like bread and wine.
So Thomas asked, essentially, “What are you getting if you just get one of the elements?”
Thomas’ answer used a fancy theological word: “concomitance.” It’s a word that refers to one thing co-occuring with something else, two things existing along with each other.
The point: If you’ve got Jesus in the sacrament, you’ve got both his body and his blood — together.
If the wafer or loaf which started the service as mere bread now brings us the true presence of Christ, then it brings the whole Jesus. That’s both his body and his blood together. That’s “concomitance.”
(If you are keen to read Thomas on the topic, you can find the whole shebang at the amazing Christian Classics Etherial Library. This link will take you to a relevant section. However, as my students will confess, reading Thomas takes some practice. Teaching you how would be another blog post.)
I once had a conversation with a child who was hesitant to take communion, knowing that children aren’t supposed to drink wine. Teaching about concomitance was very useful. If the child received the bread, and let the cup pass by, then the child would still receive all that was promised.
Plus, the child would know a cool word that nobody else in grade school had heard before.
I think Thomas was right — and that what he said about the whole Christ being present in even one element of the sacrament is good news for us in the time of the Coronavirus.
Really, he was right no matter your view of the Eucharist:
- whether you believe the bread and wine become the body and blood,
- or whether you believe Christ is present in, with, and under the bread and wine,
- or whether you believe Christ is spiritually present (and therefore really present),
- or whether you believe that you are looking up to heaven where Christ as ascended bodily, while you feed on him in your heart by faith
When you receive Christ at the Eucharist, even if you receive only the sacramental bread, you receive the whole of Christ.
More to Come?
And if your city goes into lockdown and you can’t attend worship at all?
Thomas Aquinas has good news for you in that situation too.
He taught that we can receive the benefit of the Lord’s Supper by desiring it, even if we can’t actually attend and receive the sacrament bodily.
But that’s for another time.
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