If this were a normal Holy Week (it isn’t), and if I were presiding over a Maundy Thursday service (I’m not), then the service would typically conclude with the stripping of the altar. As Psalm 22 is read, we would remove every element of Eucharistic worship from sight, every candle, every linen, every chalice, every paten, even every vestment. The processional cross would be shrouded in black. And then as the last word of the last verse of the Psalm rang out, the priest would yank the fair white linen from the table, the lights would fall, and the altar would be stripped. Sitting in silence and in darkness those present would be invited to imagine life without the cross, life without resurrection, life without Eucharist.
On this Maundy Thursday, though we will not gather together to worship, we no longer have to imagine such a moment. The circumstances of this crisis have stripped the altar for us.
Brad East’s recent reflections on streaming, sacraments, and technology, put me in mind of the stripped altar as I contemplated Holy Week in isolation. When I read his thoughts on why technology cannot, should not, mediate the Eucharistic feast, even as many of us, such as myself, have reluctantly recorded our services, the image of the stripped altar came to my mind as a picture of our moment. We are still the church, yes, but we are a church without a feast because we cannot gather together.
In my conversations over the past weeks, many have noted that the virus and the social distancing it requires have ushered us into a prolonged Lent, and this is true in a sense. More pointedly from the standpoint of my Anglican tradition, we have been ushered into the silence and the darkness of Maundy Thursday. Until we can gather again, we are people of the stripped altar.
To the extent that we embrace technology as means of connection in this time, we should also grieve the necessity to do so, grieve the crisis and its effects that make such steps necessary. And this week of all weeks we ought to grieve, and on this day of all days when, as the collect from the Book of Common Prayer has it, we typically gather “in thankful remembrance of Jesus Christ our Savior, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life.”
Because different cities and different states have responded to this crisis with varying measures and restrictions, a countless number of natural experiments are being run simultaneously. On the other side of this crisis awaits a mountain of data for social scientists, economists, public health officials, and educators to comb through and ask, “what really made a difference?” What were the effects of social distancing? What were the results of a mass move to online education? What are the economic effects of the stimulus package?
In the aftermath the Church too will have her own set of questions. The swift move to online versions of Christian worship, especially by liturgical churches, means that we are road testing our theologies of word and table in real time. We are in a sense testing the limits of Christian worship and community. But as we ask questions and move into new territory, I do not believe that the sacrament of the table is a place where we ought to push the bounds. It comes down to a question related to real presence.
One of the classic theological questions related to the Eucharist is the question of real presence, the if and the how of Christ’s presence in the celebration of holy communion. I would propose that our inability to gather has inverted this question. By asking whether or not one can or cannot celebrate communion by means of streaming technology, we are asking what constitutes the real presence of God’s people. The question before us is not is Jesus present, but are we. Are we present to him, not simply as two or three gathered in his name, but present in a way that does justice to the sacrament itself and to Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians that we wait for each other (1 Cor. 11:33)?
On Maundy Thursday we typically remember the words of institution (“This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you”), which constitute the minimal core of any celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These words have been a classic battle ground over questions of Christ’s real presence. Recall Luther scrawling these words on the table at Marburg.
But on this particular Maundy Thursday, there are another set of words that I want to draw attention to that speak to the question of our real presence. In Matthew’s account of the last supper, just after the words of institution, Jesus utters these seemingly bewildering words, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt: 26:29).
I have often passed over these words, but they are a reminder that Jesus is himself fasting from his own supper. Why? Because the fullness of his body, his wholly washed and wholly redeemed bride is not yet with him, not present to his very real, very resurrected body. Jesus fasts because he is waiting for the real presence of his total church.
A local congregation is a little body, a little bride, a visible sign of the invisible reality of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Until we can be truly present to each other, Jesus’ fasting from his own supper suggests that we ought to continue to fast from that same supper.
Perhaps meditating on Jesus’ fasting does not take away the sting of our own fasting. If anything, it might very well heighten it, but it does provide some context for considering what our presence means to each other, the very thing that has been stripped from us.
This, however, is not the only story of Maundy Thursday. We may sit in the silence and darkness of the stripped altar, but we are not bereft. Because there is another movement to Maundy Thursday where we remember Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. These actions give the day its name because maundy, from the Latin for command, refers to the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples after washing their feet—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
A fasting church is still the church, and still called to the love of God and the love of neighbor. Our acts of love look much different now. Our acts of love look like staying home, giving blood if we can, buying food for the hungry. The scale of our love may have shrunk, but the fact of our love has not.
Holy Week invites us to enter into the sufferings, the passion of Jesus Christ. This Holy Week we have been invited into a new dimension of that suffering in the form of a fast from each other, which I believe requires our fasting from the feast of Christ’s table. That is the lesson of the stripped altar. But the lesson of the washed feet, the new commandment to love another, is that we can never, must never, fast from our love of neighbor.