As Holy Week approaches, my thoughts turn to worship, specifically how our worship might change during this crisis. I’m not a liturgical theologian. I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about worship. I suppose, if I’m any kind of theologian, I’m a mystical theologian. I spend most of my time thinking about how people in this world grow close to God, as my friends at the Spirituality Network like to phrase it. I tend to think that worship should focus on this question as well, and since God can find a way to draw us close in any situation, I don’t have many prejudices about liturgical form. I like high church and I like low church, if the worship is intentional, full of the Holy Spirit, and helpful to our spiritual growth. Right now, there are interesting arguments raging in the episco-sphere about what is permissible during this time of social isolation. The arguments that base themselves on tradition or the role of the priesthood have no appeal to me at all, regardless of their point of view. The arguments that focus on the human soul, and how worship invites and shapes our yearning for God, speak to me deeply.
I’ve been looking for conversation partners as I explore this question, and have found and been sent many very useful emails and articles. I’ve also been very fortunate to discover David Fagerberg’s book, Liturgical Mysticism. Fagerberg is asking the same questions I’m asking, and exploring them deeply with all the thoughtfulness and depth of research of the academy. He has introduced me to the term “liturgical mysticism,” which he coined himself, and I rather like it as a self-description. I’m a liturgical mystic, through and through. Fagerberg’s formulation is: “liturgical theology asks, ‘What happens in liturgy?’ Liturgical mysticism asks, ‘What happens to us in liturgy?'”
Right now, our eucharistic liturgy is much diminished, if it’s happening at all. At St. Stephen’s, the small crew that gathers to produce the live-stream is still celebrating the eucharistic feast on Sunday morning, but no one is partaking of the bread and wine. The reformed church fought long and hard to end the practice of private mass, in which a priest celebrated without the people being present. We’ve asserted that communion is a feast of the whole body of Christ, and requires at least two or three members of that body to take place. Last Sunday there were nine of us who gathered to live-stream the Celebration of Holy Eucharist, and we could have shared the bread and wine as avatars of the whole church, present in the room. We didn’t, because I’m concerned about what happens to us in such a liturgy. It would be hard for me to ignore the prevailing sense of privilege, the assumption that we were, somehow, the lucky few who got our hungers met, while everyone else had to go without. It would feel a little like the church in Corinth, which Paul roundly chastised for allowing the rich members to eat up all of the food that they personally brought to the feast, while the poor members, who brought little, went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).
So why celebrate a eucharist at all, if no one is to partake of it? I’m still thinking this through, and considering the possibility of simply switching to Morning Prayer for our principal Sunday worship. Yet, for the moment, I feel that the liturgy of uneaten eucharist has the capacity to form us, to make something profound happen within us, to draw us close to God. For one, it reminds us, powerfully, of our hunger for God. We want to eat the bread and drink the wine, which is why some are suggesting ways to consecrate bread and wine in people’s homes over Zoom. But Christian spirituality is not simply about getting our hungers met. The great mystics all knew that for the soul to grow close to God, it has to honestly enter into times of privation, whether by choice, such as when we take on the disciplines of self-denial that are so common in Lent, or by God’s acting to darken our apprehension of beauty and divinity in our lives, so that the egotistical parts of ourselves, that want to control and manipulate our spiritual experiences, can die away. Knowing that God’s grace, as expressed in Holy Communion, is vibrant and offered to the world when we ourselves can’t experience it, is akin to the Dark Night of the Soul that St. John of the Cross elaborates so beautifully.
The other reason to continue this liturgical practice, at least for now, is that it’s eschatological. As a Christian community, we’re used to, even committed to, yearning for a better world. We’ve been told what the end of all creation will be like. After a time of tribulation, we will experience the eschaton, the true ending, when the goodness of creation is fully restored, the wound at the heart of the world fully healed. Isaiah speaks about this beautifully in his metaphor of the Holy Banquet. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death for ever (Isaiah 25:6-8a).” The yearning after this vision shapes and molds us. We want it so badly that we’re willing to act as if it’s already happened — to share what we have with the world around us, to work for justice, to repair that which is broken in our politics, our personal relationships, our attitudes towards the environment. We need to be constantly reminded of this vision, and the voice of the eucharist does this on a weekly basis, whether it’s shared or not.
So, for this Sunday at least, we will continue to live-stream a eucharist, but no one will partake of the bread and wine that I consecrate. They will be given to the earth. I know that this will disappoint me, will leave me with the feeling of not being fed. Yet I want my hunger to shape me, to make me confront the part of myself that insists on always being comfortable, to draw me close to God.