Human creatures, according to God’s purposes, are made to be together. To separate us from one another is thus inhuman, precisely because such separation thwarts God’s very purposes.
Prison, exile, desert banishment: These are punishments not only because they stymie our desires, but because they deliberately rob individuals of their intrinsic identities. Even St. Benedict knew that saving our own souls was something that demanded the daily life of side-by-side prayer and toil, of “other people,” of neighbor, and of the Body of Christ, to which we become bound.
The destiny of the human creature is not about camaraderie, to be sure. Our destiny is rather tied to entanglement and service, life-blood and its threats. Infants against their mothers’ bosoms; children pressed against their parents, grandparents and siblings; hard and peaceful play and confrontation; the sacrifice of common toil; the sharing of food, from hand to hand; the grasp of comfort and the tension of rebuke’s hot breath. Such a destiny is Jesus himself, emerging from Mary’s womb and traversing the entire path of his life in a healing trail of touch, spittle, whispered friendships and loud crowds, and of blood, water, and tears that finally drip upon his mother’s face. The Kingdom of God is the gathering that comes from such a journey, made up of myriads. Their voices merge with the surge of robes washed in the gifts of Christ’s own self-offered flesh, now taken to the throne of God.
The Time of the Virus, therefore, has thrust us into a deep struggle over our created destiny. Social distancing, isolation, quarantine, sheltering in place—the phrases and the practices they define, indeed the very policies that promote these practices, grate against our destiny as a searing contradiction. We know that these policies are aimed at preserving human life, and that their purpose is driven by a real, desperate compassion. Indigenous communities in North America, whole peoples in Sub-Saharan Africa, the hidden poor of our cities: all under tremendous threat, in some places a threat unleashed by ill-conceived church services themselves. Empathy cries out for “lockdown.”
But empathy and care dare not obscure the goal of our creation. The ease, apathy, or simple bewilderment with which Christians have embraced this sorrow of separation bespeaks some long cultural inurement that seems to have sapped a thirst for our created end. We shall need to examine ourselves on this account. Still, the Christian Church, for all her failures, should surely, Job-like, be struggling against this tide of drifting detachment. For more than anyone, the Church understands this truth: Formed from the dust in solitude, as St. John Paul II so deeply recognized, we are drawn into the companionship of both created and uncreated love in a divine movement that marks the resounding music of the cosmos, tuned to its intrinsic Wisdom.
Current debates over the Eucharist in this pandemic moment are proper signs of our struggle to rediscover this movement and resonate with its sounds. And as the virus recedes, or at least as governments stumble to grasp some forms of social normalcy in the weeks ahead, churches are perhaps called to be the foremost witnesses to the fact that we can come together again responsibly, and that such coming together is the very virtue of our lives. We have argued now for weeks about whether we can celebrate the Eucharist as a people; and now we must show the larger civil society that it is possible to do so. This will be a vanguard sign to our neighbors that human life has not been banished to the corners of our bedrooms, whose walls are vaguely tinted by the quivering shadows of the Internet.
The Eucharist, after all, is the supreme instantiation of human destiny, given in the Second Adam. In this one place—where all have gathered in the “same place” (1 Cor. 11:20)—and in this one Person, Jesus the Christ, human persons in their mortal flesh receive their created being as a gift of life from God and give it away thankfully in a perfect love that transcends the limitation of all desires and despairs together. In just this act, the Eucharist is for the world, not for the Church alone, a map for all human becoming. The world is yearning, silently or unconsciously as it may be, to traverse this path.
“When you come together,” St. Paul emphasizes in describing the Church’s eucharistic sign (1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33). We must come together again soon, tangibly, truly, and show the world that this is how God has made us and for what. In coming together, it is the body and blood of the Messiah that we are given, in the palpable forms of bread and wine. Just these physical realities—flesh and food, blood and drink—establish the mortal limits of Jesus’s sacrifice, now “proclaimed” to be the “Lord’s death,” as real, as constricted to time and place as any; but because “the Lord’s,” as the stuff of life. He dies alone, that we might be given life together. Our “coming together,” and the life-giving limits of the Lord’s death, are of one gracious and astounding piece. We are made to be together, and it is together in the very constraints of our created flesh that the Lord meets us, gives us his own flesh, and in so doing gives us life.
St. Paul’s discussion of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11 is driven by the demands of this creaturely and divine convergence in flesh. “Divisions” destroy it, he insists; going our own way subverts it; secretly resenting it perverts it. Everything here is given in proximity, in touch, in gaze, in the sharing of space, goods, and self. “When you come together.” The very world is eucharistic in its final end. This, the Church proclaims. She must live it, too.
The Time of the Virus has exposed the Church’s self-imposed “moving apart” as a process that has gone on for centuries. Eucharistic dissolution is not something to which Christians have recently acquiesced. The divided Church has, in her own tangible ways, long paved the road to accepted Christian sequestration. As have the Church’s abuses of proximity. So too, finally, has the more recent individualizing and pneumaticizing of our faith. “I worship God anywhere,” we insist. Coming together in this “anywhere” becomes at best a projected pantomime of personal sensibility, to be dimly noted from afar. That we would—as we have done these last weeks—allow our neighbors, families, and brothers and sisters in Christ to die alone, even in the face of fearful contagion, is astonishing. St. Paul did not shy from the awful truth: No wonder, he writes, that, in flesh or spirit, “many are weak and sickly among you and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). They sleep alone.
Yet the world thirsts after the Church’s true Eucharist. For the past few weeks, we have wavered and wondered at what is possible, hesitated at epidemiological obstacles, shuddered before economic threat, and variously decried diverse responses to restricted worship. It’s time to move on, and our governments and people long to find a way to do this. Let Christians now figure out how we might celebrate the Eucharist again, and quickly, and let us commend our purposes. Let us take the arguments of the past weeks and, like the wise scribes of the Kingdom we are—scientists of divine prudence, of purpose and meaning, of human destiny—let us outline how we shall “come together” responsibly. We have examples, from Sweden and Africa; we have data of dangerous and judicious ecclesial behavior both. We can be taught. Let bishops and church leaders formulate their plans—how many in a building, in what order, on what schedule, with what precautions—and let them consult with civic authorities and call us together. Where there is opposition, let us press our case humbly but fearlessly.
We can now look back on these past few weeks and their sullen confinements, and see how God has ultimately pointed us in another direction altogether. We can take what we have learned, reframe our shuffling hesitations, and try again. For the one who died alone is risen not to comfort us, but to lead us to our end. The world awaits the Church’s rousing.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.