It is wonderful to be back in “Holy Eucharist mode” on Sunday mornings and using the familiar rhythms of our weekly worship together. And yet, we are still not gathered together as we used to be and cannot participate together in the physical act of sharing the sacramental Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, together. I want to reflect on what it means for us to be gathered together on Sunday even in our separate homes, and what Spiritual Communion means to us in this time of pandemic.
Firstly, one reason we have maintained a live online service on Sunday mornings (rather than pre-recording it as many churches are doing), is so that we are literally doing it at the same time together and keeping to the routine and ritual of our Sunday morning rhythm. This gives structure and meaning to our week and our lives. Live worship means there are going to be glitches and mistakes, but it also means it’s real worship we are doing together. It’s also great that people can watch the video recording later on in the week if they miss out on Sunday morning, but being gathered at the same time is a meaningful part of our spiritual practice.
You probably noticed that at the time in the service that we would normally come forward to receive Communion, instead we say together a prayer for Spiritual Communion. This means that we ARE receiving the sacrament spiritually even when we don’t receive it physically. As the Book of Common Prayer states, “If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.” (BCP 457)
This is an ancient practice of the church. When a person, perhaps very sick or near death, cannot physically swallow Communion, we know they are receiving spiritually and “all the benefits of Communion are received”. Likewise, in times of war or other hardships in the past, the prayer of Spiritual Communion was offered to soldiers and others as a way of knowing that they were still connected to and with the Body of Christ even when they couldn’t receive Communion. So in a way we’re not doing anything that is new, even though it is new to us. On the flip side, it’s also worth knowing that it is not appropriate to “participate” in the Eucharist with bread and wine at home. “Virtual” communion is a practice that is unknown to the Church and has been specifically prohibited by our Bishop.
One thing we say about Communion is that Christ is truly present to us in the bread and in the wine. We call this the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. But Christ is not only present in the bread and wine. Christ is also present in the whole of our worship together – reading scripture, proclaiming the Gospel, and in song and prayer. And Christ is also present in our world and in our lives.
God is always present and available to us at all times. We do miss the sacraments, but the thing that the sacraments represent and symbolize – God present in our community and in creation – is still there, has not gone anywhere. This is what we are affirming and declaring together when we say the Prayer for Spiritual Communion.