How can we be the body of Christ when the coronavirus closes our churches?
I did not go to Mass this weekend. I am grateful that my parish and diocese have suspended the public celebration of the Eucharist for the foreseeable future in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This will hopefully slow the spread of the virus and contribute to the well-being of the members of our community most vulnerable to Covid-19.
But I would be lying if I said that I did not feel a sense of loss, that watching the Eucharist online was just as fulfilling as receiving it in person. Despite my struggles in the faith, I can count on two hands the number of times as an adult that I have missed Mass on a weekend. That does not make me a better person but rather a person aware of my need. I need the body of Christ like I need my coffee in the morning, like my medications, like my daily bread, like water.
This coronavirus, like all “successful” viruses, is spreading so well because it has found a way to exploit a good part of who we are. In this case, like many other coronaviruses, it has found a way to hijack our social nature. Like H.I.V./AIDS hijacks the basic good of sexual intimacy, Covid-19 is hijacking the basic goods of closeness and community. If you have found yourself in the last few days stopping just before an embrace or awkwardly resisting a handshake, you have felt how unnatural it is for us to hold back bodily expressions of our relationships.
I need the body of Christ like I need my coffee in the morning, like my medications, like my daily bread, like water.
One thing unnerving about this virus and many other illnesses is that it can feel like our bodies are betraying us. This is true of our physical bodies but also our social and ecclesial bodies. Assembling for the Eucharist, that is, becoming the body of Christ, with the people we love now carries risk for ourselves and others. Receiving the body of Christ through bread and wine is now potentially dangerous.
So how can we continue to be the body of Christ as this crisis unfolds? How do those of us who need the body of Christ like we need bread and water continue to receive it?
Encountering the Body of Christ
Two things give me hope. First, while the Eucharist may be one of the clearest places to encounter Christ and receive his body, it is not the only one. We can re-embrace the presence of Christ in the Scriptures. Many Catholic publishers, like Give Us This Day and Magnificat, are providing free access to their materials for the duration of this crisis. Many churches and pastors are streaming the Mass online and on TV, so we can feast at the table of God’s word even if we cannot receive Christ’s body in the Eucharist.
We also can venerate the body of Christ in countless ways in our community. One way, paradoxically, is to protect the body of Christ by fasting from the Eucharist and avoiding physical contact with each other.
But there will be plenty of other opportunities to encounter the body of Christ in the vulnerable in the coming weeks, even if from an appropriate distance. Jesus teaches us in Mt 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” I have the privilege of being healthy and at low risk for complications from the virus. How can I use my time to support those in my community who are more biologically vulnerable? I have the privilege of being able to earn a salary as I work and teach from home. How can I use my resources to support those in my community who are economically vulnerable? I have the privilege of not being incarcerated, not being undocumented, not being a refugee or asylum seeker. How can I visit Christ in prison through creative forms of care? How can I welcome the stranger and support policies that will not turn our detention centers and prisons into death traps for the body of Christ in our midst?
In this time in which we are not able to encounter Christ in the assembly or the Eucharist, we always have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the vulnerable.
St. John Chrysostom, preaching on Mt 25, famously taught us to honor Christ’s body not only in the Eucharist but also on the streets:
Would you honor Christ’s body? Do not neglect Him when naked; do not, while you honor Him here [in the church] with silken garments, neglect Him perishing outside of cold and nakedness.... For what is the profit, if His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger?
In this time in which we are not able to encounter Christ in the assembly or the Eucharist, we always have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the vulnerable, even in ways that protect ourselves and those we wish to help from further risk. A meal or groceries left on a doorstep, a contribution to a fund for unemployed restaurant workers, a check-in with an isolated older person or a friend who has suddenly become a homeschooling parent—we can all do something, for someone, in this time.
Fasting from the Body of Christ
I also have a sense of hope because it is Lent, a season not only of penance but of hope. The church has always embraced periods of fasting and feasting, and our Lenten abstinence is meant to help us focus on what is most important by letting go of what distracts us from Christ.
This Lent, we are being forced into a strange sort of fasting from the body of Christ in our assemblies and in the Eucharist. We might notice the hunger, the absence that comes from this fast so as to appreciate it yet more deeply when, in Easter joy, we are able to receive the body of Christ in these ways again. Like the catechumens preparing for baptism, we are all being dismissed before the liturgy of the Eucharist to reflect more deeply on Christ’s word. Fasting now may help us appreciate Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the assemblies that celebrate it more clearly after this too has passed. It may not happen on the “official” date of Easter, but the lesson of the rhythms of our church is that Easter joy and feast follows Lenten sacrifice and fast like the rising dawn follows the darkness of night.
May God keep us all safe in these difficult times. May we be the body of Christ to each other and the most vulnerable around us. And by doing so, may we come to receive with greater gratitude the body of Christ wherever he meets us.
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”