At this point in our Holy Week cycle of worship we would be meeting together for a service of Holy Communion for Maundy Thursday. This may be preceded with a symbolic meal together, often with other churches in the area. It may be a simple supper of soup or bread and cheese. In some churches it is a full Seder/Passover meal. Whatever our practice we realise that it will not be happening this year. It feels like the Lenten fast is stretching out for many more weeks.
Participating in the Lord’s Supper together is a ritual, to be sure. But it is so much more than that. It is a sacrament — literally, a holy thing — which God gives to us as a sign of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for us. Holy Communion is a means of grace, by which we receive the love of God through the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our common worship together.
So what are we to do now, when we are practicing physical distancing from one another as a way to arrest the spread of this terrible virus epidemic that has so interrupted our regular daily lives? Should we come together and celebrating Communion in spite of the practical dangers involved? Prudence dictates that we need to maintain our discipline for a few more weeks, particularly to protect the weak and vulnerable amongst us.
Should we use the technology available to us and change what we understand Communion to be and conduct Communion on line? Our Denomination has ruled that is not permissible. (‘Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media’ – Faith and Order Committee Report Methodist Conference 2018) So what do we do this year?
Almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus, a ‘virus’ swept through the land of Judah. The name of that ‘virus’ was called The Babylonian Empire, and it wreaked havoc across the towns and cities of the Judah. By the time the Babylonian army had finished its work, the walls of Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble and the Temple had been burned to the ground. The people were carried into exile, and the Temple worship that had symbolised for the Jews communion with the God of Israel was denied them. It was the greatest disaster that they could have ever experienced — the inability to practice that form of worship that had stood at the center of their faith since it had been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. What, then, was their response? Did they escape and return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple even when the danger of the Babylonian Empire was still at hand? No. Then did they build a temple replica by the rivers of Babylon and carry out an imitation of true Temple worship as a way to fool themselves into thinking that they were doing what they had always done? This they did not do either. So what did they do?
What those faithful exiles did in fact was to embrace the fast that was forced upon them, and use that fast itself as a means of grace. The discipline that it gave them opened up new ways of receiving the Lord in the situation in which they found themselves — through the singing of the Psalms of David, and through the study of the Torah and the Prophets. These means of grace became as important as the Temple worship at the time that they were forced to be away from their common home.
We find ourselves in a period of exile, although ours is very mild and will surely be of short duration. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that we are away from our Temple, which is not a building of course, but is the body that we represent when we are together in the assembly of the faithful.
Our founder, John Wesley points out the way in which fasting was used in crucial periods of crisis and challenge, both in ancient Israel and in the early church. Wesley taught that one of the most important reasons for fasting is that it is a great aid to prayer. As one means of grace (fasting) assists the other (prayer), the two of them together serve the practice of “confirming and increasing, not one virtue, not chastity only … but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience, deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God, and every holy and heavenly affection.” (Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VII). He insists that the church should practice fasting in the present, for it is one of those means of grace appointed by Christ Jesus himself. Wesley’s advice is drawn from the fruits of fasting as they are found in Scripture:
[F]irst, let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of his holy law; to wait for an increase of purifying grace, drawing our affections to things above; to add seriousness and earnestness to our prayers; to avert the wrath of God, and to obtain all the great and precious promises which he has made to us in Jesus Christ. (Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VII)
What are we called to do on this upcoming Maundy Thursday when we should be celebrating Holy Communion as part of the remembering of the Passion of our Lord? We should do what Christians would have done in similar situations from the time of the early church. We should fast and pray, allowing our inability to receive the Lord’s Supper create a holy hunger inside of us that will make the celebration of Communion that much more beautiful when we do meet together.
Finally, we will be able to come together once again as the one body in Christ. We will be together not only in Spirit, but in flesh as well. And when we are, on that Sunday when we gather together again as the living Temple of the Lord, we will cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And the one celebrating at the table will lead us to say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” And the bread will be broken, and the cup will be blessed. And all that we do, from this time to that, will serve to prepare us to resume once again the meal that Christ himself gave us when he said, “This is my body, and this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me.”