CEC Theological Reflections: Eucharist and Communion during COVID-19 pandemic

As part of CEC’s monthly Theological Reflections series “Communion in Crisis: The Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Rev. Cristian Sonea from the Romanian Orthodox Church reflects on Eucharist and Communion during the COVID 19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis affected most Christian communities that survived multiple lockdowns or were asked to practice social distancing, as, in fact, it affected all human communities worldwide. While for other communities the isolation had a negative impact on the economy or on human relations, on a psychological level, in the case of the Christian Orthodox communities, the social distancing measures seemed to impact the very being of the Church, in which the Eucharistic community plays an essential role. That is why, within Orthodox communities, one may find many voices that vehemently criticise the decisions of the authorities regarding the current crisis. 

In this context, it is therefore natural to try to answer some questions such as: what is the relation between the Eucharist and the community, to what extent can an online gathering be considered a church and does the absence of the gathering in one place nullify communion?

In an attempt to find answers to these questions, I will offer here a short theological reflection based on Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae’s Eucharistic theology. In his book “Spirituality and Communion in the Orthodox Liturgy” (1986), he tried to recover the original meaning of the Eucharist and of the Liturgy by showing, among other things, that Liturgy is not only about the mystery of the Eucharist, the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but also about the recapitulation of the entire economy of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus, in the Liturgy, we distinguish different aspects of Christ’s presence and work in the world, which are inseparable and complementary and represent different ways we can encounter Him and find communion with Him.

Fr. D. Stăniloae’s intuitions became extremely relevant for this period of time when the faithful were not allowed to physically participate in the Liturgy or had limited access to church services. According to him, God’s presence in history reveals His capacity to be above space and time and thus to fill up the entire space and time through His uncreated energies. This presence has two complementary meanings: He is in one place and simultaneously everywhere. His omnipresence represents the fundamental condition for our encounter with Him, as it allows all people, from all times and places to encounter Him, even those who did not or do not have the possibility to physically participate in the Liturgy.

Of course, when we talk about the Liturgy, we are not simply referring to God’s general presence in the world, but also to Christ’s real and personal presence, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit as, during the Liturgy, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Through this transformation and through communion, we experience the mystery of our encounter and union with Him. Through His incarnation, Cross and resurrection, Christ removed the three obstacles that stood between our union with God: the limited nature of the human being, sin and death. In the Eucharist, the Christian partakes in the maximum union between God and the human being, realised in the hypostasis of Christ, who, after His ascension to heaven, became even more present in history than he was while still on this Earth, since now He is present everywhere and even in ourselves, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is why the Eucharistic communion is related to the true being of the Church and cannot be substituted.

As a place for our encounter with Christ, the entire Liturgy, from beginning to end, starts with the preparation of the gifts and ends with the actual communion, an epiphany, or a slow and gradual revealing of Christ’s presence. Also, we can identify several aspects of His presence in the Liturgy, different types of presence, which correspond to different ways of encountering Him or finding communion with Him, all of them leading the faithful to the full Eucharistic communion. Thus, by even participating in the Liturgy, we progressively participate in the communion with Christ, a process which is fulfilled in the Eucharist. So all those present in the Liturgy do partially partake in the communion of Christ, even though they do not receive the Eucharist.

Fr. D. Stăniloae shows that Christ is present in the life of the Church in many ways. During the Liturgy, He is present in the readings from the Holy Scriptures, in the sermon, in the prayers read by the priests or the deacons, in the chants or in the responses of the faithful, in the dialogue between the priest and the faithful and then plenary in the Eucharist. To all these, we may add His presence in all the sacraments of the Church, in other church services, in all the prayers and blessing offered by the priests, in the reading of the Holy Scriptures by the faithful, in their private prayers, in the writings of the saints or other books on Orthodox teachings, in the conversations they have about God and in their good deeds.

During a lockdown or during the times when access to the Eucharist has been limited, all other ways of finding communion with God were and still are available. That is why an online gathering can be considered a community of faithful who gradually partake in the communion with Christ and who prepare themselves, through prayer, reading of the Scriptures and good deeds, for the full communion they find only in the Eucharist. Thus, this community may be regarded as a Eucharistic community witnessing a progressive epiphany that will be fulfilled when they are able to participate in the actual Liturgy. The virtual presence in the Liturgy that is broadcasted online cannot dissolve or nullify the communion, even though the faithful do not receive the Eucharist. Unfortunately, in the Romanian tradition (but not only), it is not rare for the faithful to participate in the Liturgy without taking communion. The validity of the Eucharistic communion is confirmed by Fr. D. Stăniloae who explains the double role of the priest during the Liturgy as follows: Christ Himself works through the priest for the faithful, while the faithful, through the priest who takes communion, present their prayers and sacrifices directly to Christ. That being said, although the theoretical discussion on the validity of a Eucharist without the communion of the faithful is fascinating and challenging, we are well aware of the fact that such a Liturgy does not fulfil its purpose and true reason for existing.

Still, all crises can create opportunities for those willing to see them. The inability to participate in the church services or to take communion can generate greater zeal in the faithful and raise deeper awareness of the importance and the value of the gift God imparts to their community in every Liturgy. Also, the inability to take part in the Liturgy can be converted into a different way of finding communion with Him, such as those mentioned above. As for the clergy who still have the acute memory of serving in an empty church, perhaps this can be transformed into an occasion for understanding the actual role and place of the laity and to find better, more consistent ways to involve the faithful more actively in the liturgical life of the Church. Finally, both for the clergy and the laity, the crisis caused by COVID-19, which, in all likelihood, is related to a careless and reckless attitude towards God’s creation, may be an occasion to repent for the larger ecological crisis the planet is currently going through.

Suggestions for further reading

About the author

Rev. Cristian Sonea is a professor of Orthodox Missiology at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology of Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, and is an Orthodox priest belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Broadly, his research concerns contemporary theology of Orthodox mission and the common Christian witness. He is also interested in ecumenical theology and is actively involved in ecumenical dialogue. 

Disclaimer: The impressions expressed above are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the Conference of European Churches.

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