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Eucharist in an Empty Church

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

by David Romanik

“As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,

was in this broken bread made one,

so from all lands Thy church be gathered

into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.”

Like many people, I have baked a fair amount of bread during this season of self-isolation and physical distancing. Once or twice a week, I will select a recipe and try my hand at something new. While each type of bread requires a slightly different proving time, kneading technique, and baking temperature, the general bread-making process is pretty universal: flour, salt, and a leavening agent are combined into some kind of liquid. The resulting mixture is left to rise and fall until it is ready to be baked, after which it becomes a loaf of bread. Every time I bake bread, I marvel at this process: the seemingly miraculous way that disparate ingredients come together to produce something that is fundamental to the human experience.

The hymn quoted above has a similarly expansive view of breadmaking. To the writers of the Didache, the first-century liturgical manual that inspired this hymn, the bread consecrated at Eucharist symbolizes the Church: the gathering of God’s people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Just as disparate and otherwise separate ingredients combine to create a loaf of bread, the Church includes those who might not otherwise find anything in common. According to this image, the Eucharist is a profound symbol of our radical unity in Christ: the fact that, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what our life circumstances may be, we have all been invited to Christ’s table.

As powerful as this image is, the Eucharist also does more than symbolize our unity in Christ. Since its earliest days, the Church has understood the Eucharist to be a reenactment or, more accurately, a “re-presentation” of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is why every Eucharistic prayer refers to what Jesus said “on the night he was betrayed.” Jesus handed himself over to those who would betray him and, in doing so, promised that their failure and faithlessness would be redeemed. This act is an embodiment of God’s grace, which we re-present every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist, in other words, is one of the ways that God’s grace comes into the world, and the Church’s sacred responsibility as the Eucharistic community is to be a channel for that grace.

This is the primary reason that we have continued to celebrate the Eucharist during the suspension of in-person worship at Heavenly Rest. The Church has a particular responsibility to perform the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. As the Eucharistic community, we are called to channel God’s grace into the world through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

As important as it is for us to continue creating opportunities for outreach, formation, and fellowship, I believe the most important thing for us to do during this time of pandemic is to continue to nurture our identity as a Eucharistic community.

At the same time, I am grieving our inability to worship together in person. Speaking for myself, the absence of the congregation during the Eucharistic celebration is almost physically painful. I am mindful, however, that this ought to be true when just one person is absent. Indeed, we should feel an overwhelming sense of loss when we realize that, even when the pews are full, our Eucharistic celebration is incomplete, because not everyone who has been called to the supper of the Lamb has heeded the invitation. Yet, we trust that God continues to be revealed even in our imperfect Eucharistic gathering. This is because, ultimately, our unity is found, not just in our ability to gather together, but in the gracious act of God in Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is a celebration of the fact that we are mystically connected to one another in ways that we cannot fully understand.

I pray that it will not be too long before we are able to gather to celebrate the Eucharist again. In the meantime, we will continue to nurture our identity as a Eucharistic community, trusting that our unity is a gift from God.

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