In seminary, our church history professor sent the class on a scavenger hunt to New York’s art museums, in order to ponder the theological shifts occurring during the Middle Ages. “Find me Our Lady of the S-Curve!” he warbled, contorting himself into a serpentine pose. “Look for an increase in emotional piety!” his hands held aloft like a pious Nosveratu.
We joked about it, but to this day, I cannot prevent a small, Fr. Wright-sounding voice in my head from chanting “SEATED WISDOM!” or “LADY OF THE S-CURVE!” whenever I behold any depiction of Madonna and Child. As the theological understanding of the masses shifted, those changes could be seen in Western art.
Of course, there has always been a gap between what the religious institution teaches and what the religious faithful believe within the spectrum of Christianity—this is what the art tracked. No religion exists in a vacuum-sealed pouch1; it is carried out in the real world, affected by real people and real circumstances, and that shifting dynamic is what makes the study of religious traditions so fascinating, enraging, and beautiful.
In the Middle Ages, the Pope didn’t wake up one morning and decide that right-angle Jesus on a right-angle cross looking sober and stoic no longer made sense; a confluence of events pushed that image out of popularity.
Namely, there was a big plague.
Prior to the Black Plague across Europe, images of the stoic Jesus and stoic Mary were everywhere. Not unrelated: popular belief in a corporeal, general, physical resurrection was also widespread. It was understood that Jesus’s resurrection brought to all of humanity the chance to physically follow where he led, and be raised on the last day. Burial practices concentrated on preserving all of the remains, in anticipation of that glorious event.
Then, the plague. (Carol Walker Bynum talks about this in much greater detail.) Because the plague brought intense physical pain, as well as some deformity, popular theology began to shift, and it was here that we see the Western European church begin to talk about eternal life as not physical resurrection, but a spiritual unification with God in heaven—absent a physical body. Gazing upon the physical destruction of the plague, European Christians couldn’t imagine bodies—which had caused such harm—being redeemed. Bodies brought suffering, bodies brought agony. Christ, bearer of eternal life and light, didn’t fit with that reality. So they start to spiritualize the whole deal.
Cut to: our own plague.
What has been lingering in my mind since this has started is what theological shifts we will make during this time. The discussion/argument/epic Internet Throwdown over “virtual communion”2 worries me for precisely this reason. I am not concerned with Anglican eucharistic theology per se—others are handling those arguments quite well (see: the Presiding Bishop for one.) For once, it turns out that Episcopalians actually do have somewhat of a consensus on what we believe and where the boundaries are.3 (No, priests can’t say mass by ourselves; we’re not Roman Catholic. No, saying mass doesn’t create the church; God creates the church. Yes, everyone probably needs to spend more time playing Animal Crossing and less time fighting on Twitter.)
I am concerned, though, with a larger issue here. Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of our physical bodies as the site of marked vulnerability and frailty. We watch the news, we see the cooler trucks lining the streets in New York City, we see medical experts warning us that the common physical things we do every day now put us in mortal danger. For many, it is a frightening revelation that these mortal bodies God gives us are not impervious; they fail, they suffer and they die.4
The immediate response to the crisis was to close the churches, and move everything online, which was (and remains) the correct, responsible, and loving response. God does not will the death of anyone, and indeed, God wills even less the death of anyone to be caused by our worship. Christ came that we might have life, and life abundant—a truth we undermine when we put people at risk by our actions. So, separating is the right thing to do.
At the same time, when the day comes when we can gather again, what will our attitude be towards the sacraments from which we have fasted?
The liturgy takes its power not only from the words we say, but also from the space and context in which we say them. That is, ritual means a different thing, communicates a different thing when I am standing in a room with you saying the words of institution than when I am in a Zoom meeting with you. And that ritual will mean something differently entirely when we can come together again, and you and I are both conscious in a new way of the germs on my hands, on yours, and floating in the air around us.
The danger we are talking around, I think, in many of these debates about “virtual communion”2, is our fear of precisely that scene. I can’t be the only one who finds herself watching TV shows, and flinching each time the characters leave their house. We know more now, and there’s no going back. We can’t return to the blissful ignorance of a world before the corona virus pandemic. When we show up again in a room together, it won’t just be wonderful—it will be scary.
The best of our tradition holds an opportunity for us here. The temptation is to take the medieval approach, and further spiritualize our faith: further sever the spiritual from the physical, and declare that the fullness of a person can be communicated via their floating head on a screen. This way seems the safest, the most practical—and yet it also leaves recent events unaddressed. If we treat people only as spirits, we cannot heal their physical wounds. If we pretend everyone is disembodied, we cannot address the ways in which our physical nature causes us pain—a fact which is causing the whole world a lot of trauma right now.
Yet, we hold a tradition that also promises that God came to us in this mortal flesh—as vulnerable, as frail, and as mortal as it is.
Our sacraments involve physical objects, involve touch, because God enters our world precisely in the site of our vulnerability. God enters our experience exactly where we find the most pain, the most suffering. It is in our physical embodiment where we most need to experience the presence and love of God—especially in a moment when we are so aware of our physical limitations.
We have the chance, post-pandemic, to embrace fully the physical, material nature of our sacraments. We can brave the nervousness and fear in order to experience God made real for us in the place of our greatest weakness. How meaningful will it be, after all this turmoil, to be able to place a wafer of bread in another human hand? To know that in this action, God comes near to us, even as we are newly conscious of just how risky such an action can be, and how fragile our lives really are? How powerful to rub oil into the shape of the cross on a forehead, remembering all the times we weren’t able to?
The danger of “virtual Communion”2 isn’t just a weird understanding of eucharistic theology; it’s that it creates a gnostic split between spiritual and material that ultimately leaves the pressing concerns of our time unaddressed. To lean into the physical aspects of our sacraments (when and how it is safe to do so) communicates the reality of God’s presence into all parts of our struggling existence—and most especially the parts where we are the most broken.
Ultimately, I think the times in which we live are far too dangerous for anything other than the fullness of the incarnate God. Right now, we desperately need a God who comes to us in the frailty of a human body. We need a God who saw loved ones die, feared sickness, worried over coughs. We need a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. We cannot offer our people anything less.
- A Glad bag descending from heaven, if you will. (Shout out to my GTS alums!)
- Not a thing; don’t @me.
- Pandemic miracle! Others include: a Parks and Recreation reunion episode, Ithaca getting our own Trader Joe’s.
- I say “most of us”, because the disabled and chronically ill community has always been acutely aware of this. Indeed, much of my thinking here owes a great debt to the work of disabled theologians on the critical importance of embodiment in Christian thought.