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On Floating Heads and Bodies: Sacraments in a Time of Pandemic

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.

  1. A Glad bag descending from heaven, if you will. (Shout out to my GTS alums!)
  2. Not a thing; don’t @me.
  3. Pandemic miracle! Others include: a Parks and Recreation reunion episode, Ithaca getting our own Trader Joe’s.
  4.  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.

Blanche et Noire, parte deux

(cross-posted to Facebook)

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
When I was in Haiti, visiting Ravine a l’Anse with a team from St. Paul’s, we were in the marketplace of Les Cayes. (Whenever you’re in a foreign country, go to a grocery store or the marketplace–it’s the best.)

As we were strolling along, a woman approached me, and announced to me, in a loud voice, “Tu es blanche!” (trans. You are white.) Drawing on my six years of French, I responded, “Oui” for indeed, this was so. She repeated herself, pronouncing the words like the ruling of a monarch setting forth a new law: “TU ES BLANCHE!” Again, I agreed, “Ouais.” I am never more casper-like than in Haiti.
She drew herself up to her fullest height, fluttered her hand in a sweeping motion down in front of her, as if encompassing her entire being, her essence, the soul of her humanity in all its glory, and pronounced her final verdict to me, in a voice smooth with dignity: “Moi, je suis noire!” And turned and sauntered away, as if she had established, once and for all, her infinite claim to truth in the world. 

I think about her this week, this ordinary Haitian woman who literally proclaimed her pride in existence to me in the public square. I think of the faces of the children who pestered me, in ever more creative ways, to give them a ball. I think of the man who tied a rope around his waist, and lowered himself into a hole in the ground to dig a well for the village–by hand. So they would have water. And I think of the faces of the vestry of the church we work with, who patiently sat with us for hours, as they explained how they wanted to improve the lives of their people.

Haiti (and South Sudan, and Kenya, and Togo, and the other places the president slandered) aren’t notable because occasionally a great person emerged from there. They are notable because ordinary people live there, with the miraculous yet commonplace human capacity to live and thrive and be human. That nameless Haitian woman in the marketplace wears her pride with ease for she is the living image of God, and she knows it.

May we all know it too.

Fun Camp Interlude!

Each year, at the beginning of June, I head to the wilds of the Ozarks for a week to help staff Camp Wemo–a week-long camp for middle–high school youth in the diocese.  I am a cabin counselor, I help run games, and activities, I plan and lead liturgies, I explain why we can’t panic at the sight of ALL bugs, only the really hairy ones, and generally attempt to keep the lives of 6-8 middle school girls on track for a week.  It’s a trip.

This year, our theme was Proclaiming the Good News to All Creation.  Because the Presiding Bishop had come to the diocese earlier in May, we decided to springboard off that theme, and continue the idea of evangelism all year.  So on the day that I had to give a 5 minute clergy talk, I decided to talk about what good news was, and what our experience of the gospel was.

Here’s what I said.  (More or less.  I didn’t have this in front of me, and I was standing outside talking off the top of my head.)

What is Good News?


We promise at our baptism to share by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ.


We also promise to persevere in resisting evil. (Hold these two ideas in your mind.)


What is this Good News, and are there times when the gospel is heard in ways that aren’t good?

Now think about it–can I say some things that aren’t good news to you right now?  What if I come over here to Amanda (walks over to Amanda, counselor) and tell her that I have some great news for her!  News that will change her life, news that will make every day of her life worth living!  Isn’t that great, Amanda?!

Amanda says yes.

Amanda, I need to tell you, that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ really hates your shoes, and you need to give them to me immediately.  THIS IS THE GOOD NEWS I HAVE BEEN SENT TO PREACH.

Now, Amanda, does this seem like good news to you?

Amanda, correctly, says that no, this does not seem like good news at all.  She likes her shoes.  

See, that’s the thing.  Sometimes, I think we can preach the gospel in ways that people don’t hear as good news.

I grew up in Virginia, I think most of you know that. My family has lived there for generations. We had a mill in Spotsylvania, outside of DC. And we owned slaves.  We did. Because it was the south, and that was how you made money. And I know, from hearing my grandparents’ stories, that they and other owners made their slaves go to church and be baptized and they preached to those slaves. And they read to them those parts of the Bible where it talks about submitting to authority. And how God placed leaders in power, so you should see them as God appointed. And turn the other cheek meant suffering without complaint, and being meek, silent and obedient.


And I know, if I were a slave, and if my life, my family’s life, was not mine that none of that would sound like good news.  How is it good news if God wants you to suffer like that?!


But I also know that the slaves didn’t listen for long. They read the Bible, oh they did. But they read the parts where Paul said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”  They learned about Jesus, but they figured out that Jesus didn’t come to make them more submissive, but they read that part in Luke where Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue and told the people that he had come to set the captives free and preach Good News to the poor. And they knew that Jesus did not want them to suffer as they were. They heard the Good News.

IN SPITE of what my ancestors were telling them.


They would sing songs to God at night about a sweet chariot coming to take them home, and my ancestors would say “oh how lovely, they have such faith in a heaven!” But little did they know it was a code. they were singing their way to freedom in Canada. Because Jesus brought Good News.


I tell this story, because there is still today a danger that we mistake bad news for good. That when we preach about God, we get turned around and confused, and say things that are hardly good for anyone to hear. Because there are people out there trying to sell a lot of bad news. There are people and there always have been, trying to promote a lot of meanness, hatred, division. Telling us that if we just learn to fear those who are different from us, everything will be better, and in fact/-that’s what Jesus wants. More fear. More anger. More violence. That those who are poor or sick or hurting deserve it and are on their own.  That there are people out there that God doesn’t love.  Can you imagine?! 


But that is not Good News. We know that. And to quote Michael Curry–if it’s not good news, it’s not of God.

Jesus came and brought us Good News. Jesus came and asked us to care for one another. He asked us to heal the sick, shelter the weak, knock down walls, and feed the hungry. He demanded that we love one another, and he told us that perfect love casts out fear. And that with him we wouldn’t even need to be afraid any more if we just learned to love each other.

That is the good news. That is the story we have to tell. That is what the world needs to hear. The amazing news that God loves us so much he asks us to love each other and LOOK WE ARE DOING IT.

So, I know it’s hard. I know we mess it up. But never be afraid to tell the good news.  Because that is what the world needs to hear.  And that is what we need to hear.


Both sides now

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I confess to you, my neglected blog that I have gotten into more internet fights than is usual for me.  

I don’t know that this is intentional; at least on my part, I find that I have markedly less tolerance for people continuing to excuse actions I find inexcusable.  These past few months have seemed to take a heavier toll than usual, and I daresay this is true for people on the other side of the spectrum as well–who knows?

But one refrain I have heard several times has stuck with me: “both sides.”  “We have to hear both sides.”  “There are two sides to this.”  “What about the other side?”  “Aren’t we called to love the other side?”


It has haunted me, this idea of “both sides”, and in the terms of the President on Saturday afternoon “many sides”.  Is that what we’re called to do as Christians?  

It is certainly a modern expectation of polite society.  The common understanding is that every situation is a Rashomon: a complicated situation that we may never fully understand, because everyone’s story is necessarily different.  So, in order to gain a more full picture, we have hear all sides.  We are blind people grappling with an elephant.  We are tiny insects on a beach ball.  And for most nuanced situations, these analogies work very well.  They encourage us to question our own assumptions, and stay humble in the moment.  They remind us that what we see is not all there is to see.  


And yet, in situations like what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday, can we, as Christians, take the same feeling-out-the-elephant approach?  For the most part, that approach is predicated on the idea that truth, while it does exist, is ultimately unknowable.  It’s a mystery!  So that’s great for situations where the full truth is overly complex or impossible to fully grasp.  And there are many of those.  


But on Saturday?  Saturday, we had all the information.  There was a long-planned rally of several white supremacist groups organized by a far-right blogger.  They came to Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.**  They came well-armed, and bearing tiki torches, chanting slurs and Nazi slogans.  They attacked counter-protesters with bottles, metal bars, and finally and most tragically, with a speeding car.  19 people were injured: 1 person died.  2 police also died when their helicopter crashed.  


The dogmas of white supremacy are familiar to us; they have been the virus embedded in the soil of this country since its founding. It snakes out in various forms at various times: chattel slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, the war on drugs, mass incarceration–and sometimes it recedes, but it’s always there.  Lurking.


This is not a mystery to us.  We know what fascism is.  We know what white supremacy is.  We have seen both before. And we have lost many human souls to both.


That, to me, is the crux of the issue, so I don’t think that “what about the other side?” is the right question to ask.  We aren’t missing any information.  I don’t think it’s the proper metric for this situation.  When I read the gospel, I do not find Jesus urging his followers to examine many sides of an issue.  Instead, he urges them to alleviate human suffering wherever they find it. Period.  Love God, and love your neighbor, he says: and from these two commandments come all the law and the prophets.  


Those commands don’t urge us to a concept of ‘fairness’.  Instead, they push us to focus on our fellow humans, and their needs.  Jesus tells us that the meek are blessed, the grieving will find cheer.  He tells us that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, and release to the captives.  He reminds us that he has come to seek and save the lost, as he eats with tax collectors, sex workers, and Samaritans.  In Christ’s world, it isn’t about ‘sides’, it’s about love.  What does love require?


In fact, Jesus is not fair at all.  As Fr. Jim Martin pointed out, the Beatitudes are one-sided:  the meek inherit the earth; those who aren’t?  They’re on their own.  The sorrowful will be comforted.  Those who are already happy?  Presumably they don’t need comforting.  

Consider also Mary’s Magnificat, where she describes how God acts in the world.  “He casts down the mighty from their seats, and has lifted up the humble and meek.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”  This is not fair!  God isn’t portioning out equally to both sides–but the inference is that God sets right that which human order has made unjust.  God is interested, not in standards of fairness, but in what makes for human flourishing.  God is interested in love.  And that’s it.


Which brings us back to Charlottesville.  As a Christian, my job is to love my neighbor, and love God.  My job is to incarnate God’s mercy and justice into the world.  So I cannot stand by in situations of human suffering and oppression and equivocate.   More important than all sides on a situation is the suffering inherent in a situation.  Did people suffer this weekend?  Yes. Because of the slogans, because of the doctrines espoused, because of the actions taken, children of God were hurt and killed, and made to feel like less than God made them to be.  That is evil, however you slice it.  


To stay silent on that evil is unloving, both to the victims of this racist violence, and to the perpetrators.  We cannot love the victims if we allow them to suffer, and we cannot love the perpetrators if we allow them to do the hurting.  Inflicting violence, be it physical, emotional, or participating in systemic violence, deadens the soul of the violent person.  It does something to you.  To love someone and want their flourishing must mean not wanting them to suffer that loss of humanity.  So we have to confront and name their violent actions as wrong, rather than minimize them as just ‘another side’.  


The gospel doesn’t have sides–it has a position.  It doesn’t ask what the facts might be, or what can be proven–oddly enough, the gospel doesn’t seem to care as much about that.  The gospel only asks us where the suffering is, and how we have helped.  That is the call of the gospel: to heal the suffering: to love God and love others.  


There are no other sides.


**Which was erected in the 1960s–meaning my parents are both more historic than that statue.  But #history, #heritage, etc.  


The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, was in Kansas City over the past few days for a revival.

I realize this sounds highly un-Episcopalian.  As I commented to someone afterwards, I was not raised to worship outside, to sing Jesus songs while clapping, or to raise my hands unless at the altar.  These things were unseemly and altogether too Baptist to be borne.

However, yesterday afternoon found me outside, in a public city square, cheering on a sermon as the head bishop of my church urged us all to get out there and reclaim the word “Christian.”  Will wonders never cease.

I admit to being a cradle Episcopalian with some trepidation–like pandas raised in the wild, we’re increasingly rare, and that’s not a bad thing.  The more the church becomes a refugee camp for those seeking solace from the terrors of the world, then the more it’s doing its job, perhaps.  However, I am a convert to the idea that we actually need to speak openly about our faith in Jesus.  I am a convert to evangelism as being A Thing.

But I have come to realize that we need to attach words to this hope that is in us.  That we need to learn how to explain to others why we care so deeply about faith, because it is, in fact, something they need to hear.  Why is it that my little church devotes so much of its time and energy to an enormous food pantry?  Why did my youngest parishioners show up yesterday morning to eagerly hand silverware to our pantry guests so they could eat a hot meal?  Why do we pray daily for the famine in South Sudan, and write our representatives at the UN, urging them to seek an end to that situation?  Why do we care so much?

For most of my life, I thought it went without saying.  That I did just what anyone would do, if they had time, or thought about it, or slowed down, or something.  Lately, I have realized that this is not true.  I live my life this way–my church acts this way– because I believe this is what Jesus wants of me.  Jesus wants me to feed the hungry.  And to fight for the poor.  And to make sure the sick are cared for.  That’s what Jesus asked of me, and because I love Jesus, I must do that.  Because we follow Jesus, this is what we do.

This isn’t true of everyone.  And by that, I don’t mean that Muslims don’t fight for the poor.  (Boy howdy, do they ever.  I’d like to introduce you to the women who staff KC for Refugees sometime if you’d like to dispute this.) Or that Jewish people don’t worry about the hungry, or that atheists or agnostics don’t worry about the poor.  They all can and frequently do.

What I mean is that there are people who choose to live selfishly.  To live as if their personal lives and wellbeing is the most important thing in the universe, and seek to structure the world around THAT belief, rather than any other.  Let the poor starve; I have enough food.  Let the sick get sicker, my staff and I will have care. And even worse, there are times when these people cloak their selfishness in the name of the Jesus I follow, as if that makes their selfishness more palatable, instead of a grave slander.

What the presiding bishop reminded me (aside from the fact that I really should use this blog for stuff other than sermons) is that we have an important story to tell, we Jesus people.  The world needs to hear that Jesus isn’t a free pass for selfishness and hatred; Jesus wants us to live for others, and to love each other. And that’s just as easy and as hard as it’s always been.

There are times when you need someone to preach to you, so that you remember the truth, and this was one of those times.  So thanks, Bishop Curry.  Let’s go tell our story.