I cried for an hour when I found out that the United Methodist Church was considering the possibility of “online communion.” To be fair, I’m a UMC church leader that lives in intentional community in rural North Carolina; a negative reaction is to be expected. The work of my community is to constantly unravel the lie that we don’t need anyone else, that cultural context is an afterthought and not a crucial part of both ministry and self-understanding and that physical presence is a luxury and not a necessity. Of course I’m not going to agree with “online communion.” Frankly, I find it an oxy moron.
But my guttural, visceral reaction to the news surprised even me. I was in seminary for three years, I’m no stranger to theological debate. Rarely, however, does it reduce me to tears. Odd though it may seem, I think my reaction had something to do with the joy I’ve found in our community garden. The other day, my housemate Erica came into our kitchen with a bowl of fresh-picked lettuce: arugula, spinach, tatsoi, etc. And I was struck that standing on the other side of the kitchen I could smell the fragrance of the lettuce. Growing up in an urban setting, the lettuce I got from the grocery store was more a “crunch” than a taste (it was mostly a vessel for getting salad dressing and cheese into my body.) The stuff that came in a plastic bag certainly didn’t have a smell. And it didn’t have a taste as strong as the spicy tatsoi that gets up into your nose and makes your eyes water.
In a way the grocery store lettuce was a kind of “virtual” produce. Sure there was a tactile object, but it was completely disembodied from any context, any place, or any people. It was simply there for my use and consumption. On the other hand, the lettuce we planted is a completely different matter. There is a relationship with the physical land that contains both an intimate knowledge of the particular soil and a knowledge that, while I can facilitate, the breath and rhythms of the land do not depend on me. It carries with it a knowledge that I am sustained by something other than myself. It reminds me that I need God and other people in order to continue existing.
Virtual “presence” cannot replace physical presence. The two are not even close to being synonymous. I am currently in a long distance relationship and, while Skype and Google Chat are brilliant conveniences I’m thankful for, they in no way replace the need or yearning for physical attention, connection and comfort.
The church cannot forget that Christ is bodily present in communion. I am disheartened by those who disparage the need for a physically present human being to bless and consecrate a physically present loaf of bread and chalice of wine within a community. Some have scoffed at this, calling it “magic.” The correct term is “mystery” and it is a beautiful understanding that God is miraculously and wonderfully present with humanity, physically and bodily, in ways that we cannot fully understand.
It bears repeating that Christ is bodily present in communion, not only in the elements themselves but in the community of believers that receive communion together. It’s not simply about the elements, but the body of people receiving the elements who are re-membered into the body of Christ. To roughly quote Augustine, we receive that which we are, Christ’s body.
Claiming that communion can be done virtually disregards what Christ’s life made plain: that the body matters. God valued physical presence so much he took on flesh and came to earth to walk with us, to touch us, to cry, to pray, to speak. To paraphrase Norman Wirzba in Making Peace with the Land, if the physical body didn’t matter, the tomb would not have been empty on Easter Morning. To disembody Christ, to make Christ “virtual”, is to disregard the very incarnation itself and if we do that, we have already failed as a church.
Is technology bad? Obviously not. I am posting this on my blog, after all. Technology certainly has its use for Christian education and information and Christ does meet us everywhere. But to deny the mystery of Christ’s physical presence in the bread and wine is not “progress” it is heresy. If I cannot touch, smell, see and feel the blessed and consecrated body of Christ, in a community of people I am committed to, then I cannot call it “communion.”