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On the Way   The Rt. Rev. Audrey Scanlan
When the Real Presence… isn’t Present
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At the time that this blog entry will post (Friday, April 3, 2020) most of the Episcopalians in Central Pennsylvania will have gone without Holy Communion for two weeks.  For some, it may have been longer (some having missed church for a week or more leading up to the suspension of worship that began on March 22nd) and for a few others (celebrants and altar parties), the time without communion may have been less; in the beginning of the days of suspended worship some congregations were cyber-casting services of Holy Eucharist where the celebrant and the other members of the altar party received the host and wine on behalf of all of those watching.  This allowed those in the congregation to make their “spiritual communion” using a prayer included in the Armed Forces’ Prayer Book: 

A Prayer for When You Cannot Attend Worship

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated.

I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving.

I remember your death, Lord Christ, proclaim your resurrection and await your coming in glory.

And since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart.

Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you.

May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and the life to come.

Amen.

–The Prayer Book for the Armed Forces (1988)

This method of joining in the mass spiritually was defined by 13c. Church Father Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” (thedailymass.com)

In our Anglican tradition, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury and author of our early prayer book Thomas Cranmer wrote this about spiritual communion in 1662: 

.. (for those whom)by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.

***

From the sidelines of our many internet devotions in the past two weeks (I am grateful to the postings on social media and our website of the services that have been cyber-cast in these weeks) I have noticed a decline in the offering of eucharistic services, and an increase in offerings of Morning Prayer.  As one priest said to me this past week: “Eating in front of everybody when they (the viewers) can’t also eat feels… weird.”  I appreciate this instinct.  And, though, as the time of our sequestration carries on with a projected end not before Pentecost, there are those who are beginning to wonder:

What should I /could I do when Communion- even “spiritual communion”-  is not an option?

or

What to Do when the Real Presence…

isn’t Present

First, let’s start with the “shoulds.”  Our prayer book and the canons of our church are silent (unlike other traditions) on how often we “should” go to church.  The Anglican tradition again and again places the weight of decision-making about this and many other issues on the responsible heart of the believer.  We do promise in the first of five baptismal promises to “…continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” (BCP 304).  We understand our participation in the Christian faith as regularly celebrated in community with each other, and that when we are gathered together, the Body is whole. I frequently say that “Christianity is a ‘team sport.’”

Our Holy Scripture tells us that gathering together is good:  

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10: 24-25)

…so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:5)

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (I Thessalonians 5:11)

It is, however, my faithful belief that our current “fast” from gathering together is really an act of agape love- selfless love- in which we are making space for the healing of our world and an act in which Christ himself would be pleased.  And so- no “shoulds.”  No guilt. We are saving lives by staying home.

What is it, exactly, that we are missing, besides being together in community and receiving the strength and consolation of Christian fellowship?  What, exactly is the “Real Presence” of Christ that we receive each week and that, now, we can’t have?

Here’s the definition:

The presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The 1991 statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission notes, “The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given. But they are really present and given in order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.” A classic Anglican statement attributed to John Donne (or to Queen Elizabeth I) and included in The Hymnal 1982 (Hymn 322) is “He was the Word that spake it, he took the bread and brake it, and what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it.” In Eucharistic Prayer A of Rite 2, the celebrant prays that God the Father will sanctify the gifts of bread and wine “by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him” (BCP, p. 363). The Catechism notes that the inward and spiritual grace in the eucharist is “the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people and received by faith” (BCP, p. 859). Belief in the real presence does not imply a claim to know how Christ is present in the eucharistic elements. Belief in the real presence does not imply belief that the consecrated eucharistic elements cease to be bread and wine.

(https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/real-presence)

For each of us, our experience of the Real Presence of Christ is different.  And, depending on the day, our own experiences will vary from one time to another.   For me- and what I have heard from others – this Real Presence of Christ as experienced in communion is healing, empowering, affirming, strengthening, sustaining, loving, compelling, filled with grace, comforting, and hopeful.  I am reminded of the admonition in our Eucharistic Prayer C that we not “come to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” (BCP pg. 372)

Sharing around the eucharistic table with our fellow Christians, receiving the Real Presence (of Christ) is to participate in the remembrance of Jesus’ life and sacrifice for us; to witness to his powerful love in which comes among us; and to enjoy a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom that awaits us.  It is a moment in which we experience fluidity of time- God’s time- kairos… and in which we are suspended in love.

This is effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the efficaciousness the community gathered, and as made possible by the One who created us.  Communion, in which we receive the Real Presence of Christ is a means by which we also experience the undivided, generative power of the Holy Trinity. It’s not just a party with Jesus at the head of the table. It is a celebration brought alive by the power of the Trinity.

And so.

What to do.

The first and most obvious idea is to continue to pray our way through the days using the rich resources of the Book of Common Prayer.  Pray the “daily offices” (Morning, Noon and Evening Prayer, Compline).  Study and pray through sections of the book that are less familiar to you: the Catechism, the Historical Documents, the Psalter, the Pastoral Offices. We could each take a full sabbatical just to soak up the bounty of our prayer book.

Then-

Why not focus on other ways in which we can encounter God in these days, looking, perhaps for God in corners where the other two persons of the Trinity (not just Jesus himself) are more accessible to us.  Honoring the Creator.  Seeking the breath of the Spirit.

Here are some ideas- 7 of them- to try.  (Why 7? It’s a good biblical number!)

  1. Notice nature.  This can be a hike, a walk, or simply sitting on our back porch listening to the birds and the sound of the wind in the trees. God is present in creation. Listen. Look. Marvel at tiny flower petals. Wonder at the hue of the cerulean sky. See the trees stretching their arms to the heavens.
  • Meditate.  Close your eyes. Fold your hands in your lap.  Select a single word or simple phrase as mantra, and repeat it to yourself. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  “Jesus have mercy on me, a sinner.”  “Thank you, God.”  “Breathe on me, breath of God.” “Come, Holy Spirit.”   Notice the effects of this time in the balance of your gentle day.
  • Create.  Get out the paints, charcoal, yarn, sheet music, dinner ingredients, garden trowel, sewing machine, lathe, hammer.  Experience the joy of potential and the act of making something new.  
  • Study. Explore more deeply something that you want to better understand.  Enjoy the scholarship of those who have worked to reveal the mystery of God’s complex world.  Acquire new learning and find God in the details.
  • Move your Body. Sweat, even. Exert your body. (with your doctor’s consultation and approval).  Feel the strength of your legs when you run, the sinews of your muscles when you stretch in yoga, the tingle of being alive and fearfully, wonderfully made.  The human body is a triumph of God’s creation. 
  • Rest.  So often, the Spirit comes to us in those liminal moments between sleeping and waking… when we are fully rested.  When you wake (if you can afford the time) lie for several moments, very quietly.  Notice the stillness. Notice God’s whisper and murmuring to you.

What are ways in which you are

 walking with God, 

discovering God, 

communing with God 

in these days?

2 thoughts on “When the Real Presence… isn’t Present”

  1. BarbaraClarke says:

    Beautifully written and very meaningful. Thank you.

  2. Barbara J. Seras says:

    Bishop! Your meditation is sooo helpful during this time…to watch for the Presence of Christ in all places.

    It came to mind a prayer from the Greek Orthodox Church [in part]: “Heavenly King, Comforter, You are in all places and fill all things…Treasury of good life and giver of blessings, come dwell in us…” God is in all places: when I sit with my cat Keukla and she snuggles and purrs, when I take time to stop and see the beauty of the earth coming again to life, when I look into the face of family, friend or stranger.

    Yes! Our Eucharist is empowering, affirming, strengthening, sustaining, loving, compelling, filled with grace, comforting, and hopeful–that outward and visible sign…given by Christ as sure and certain means. It teaches,encourages and forms me to take that Presence into my life everyday…to seek and discern Christ’s Presence in all places and all things. Thanks Bishop! Stay well all!

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