THE eucharist has been at the heart of my spiritual life for as long as I can remember — since I was a child listening out for the snap of bread being broken. It is the lens through which I see everything; it is the pulse and plumb line of life; it is a point of encounter with Christ, feeding and forming us in the midst of joy and grief, the mundane and the complex.
This communion with God is intimate: the physicality of touch, taste, and sight. It is also cosmic, enfolding us into the story of creation and redemption, restoring our vision of God’s Kingdom. This communion is endlessly repeated, but never the same, drawing together the lives of strangers, friends, and pilgrims; each one of us forgiven sinners sent out to love and serve. This encounter with Christ leads us to take risky Spirit-led steps as we respond to the cries of the world.
At the moment, those cries are sharply focused around the impact of Covid-19. Our life has been disrupted by disease. For some, this has meant isolation, even loneliness; for others, it has brought an intense proximity. Essential work continues to be done, from hospitals to supermarkets. The boundaries between public and private space are being renegotiated. We are relearning a body language of love through social distancing.
Our churches are closed for public worship and private prayer. We have moved online, learning new skills to live-stream worship; we have also reverted to communication by phone and post; we have made our homes spaces for prayer. In this time of crisis, I find myself mourning the loss of celebrating the eucharist with my congregation, but also embracing a chosen fast from this feast — not only because I live alone, but out of a sense of being with God’s people in this unchosen wilderness.
IN HIS book Finding the Church, the late priest and theologian Daniel Hardy described the eucharist as a gathered interval in the scattered life of the Church. What if we are called to inhabit an interval that is longer than a day or a week — an interval of extended scattering as we anticipate the feast?
I can offer three reflections on this moment of dispersed life: attentiveness to scripture, a call to improvise, and the hope of healing.
This Eastertide, we are walking a road to Emmaus. The world around is unsettled and fearful; we have questions that we can’t answer; we are haunted by death. Yet we also hear stories of life-affirming and demanding care. Just as Jesus opened up the scriptures for the bewildered disciples on the Emmaus road, might we also attend more deeply to God’s word?
As we take the scriptures to heart — reading in the Spirit — we rediscover who we are called to be, and learn afresh something of God’s ways with the world. As our homes become more keenly places of prayer, study, and devotion, might our hearts burn within us as we keep going, knowing that one day we will gather to break bread and know the nearness of our risen Lord with us?
To move to St John’s Gospel, there, at the very point when we might expect to hear of the Last Supper and the words of institution, we are drawn instead into the intimacy and challenge of Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet. David Ford attends to this in Self and Salvation, inviting us to consider how this might be an improvisation on the eucharist, and how we, too, learn to so improvise. Might we still be able to live “eucharistically” and creatively in the fast?
Perhaps this interval reveals the power of the sacrament: the space where we weave the eucharist into the daily life, and thereby transform it. The scattered Church thus continues to live and move, pray and serve, breath by breath — albeit over a longer and more difficult interval. Members of the body of Christ have readily turned outwards from their own sense of loss to respond to others in need, in obedience to our Lord’s command. We are seeing an intensification of loving service.
FINALLY, might a fast in the midst of a crisis bring hope of healing? In his Wording a Radiance, Hardy imaginatively explores a vision of the fullness of God’s work with the world, and the life of the Church within that. He does so in the face of his own impending death, reflecting on the way in which Jesus’s suffering in the flesh allows us to confront our limitations and bodily needs, bringing us to the place of allowing others to show care for our bodies.
Society is being confronted by these limitations, and by the trauma of sickness, separation, grief, and death. We are not exempt from this, but will have to drink this cup, too. We bring into this our own anxiety about our institutional life and tasks as a Church.
What if to fast from the feast is not to limit the eucharist, but, in the scattered interval, to learn to live it? Walking our own Emmaus, our horizons are being stretched — and, perhaps, this is the work of the Spirit.
The Revd Dr Julie Gittoes is Vicar of St Mary’s and Christ Church, Hendon, in the diocese of London.