Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber

We’re still in the midst of the Bread of Life section of John’s Gospel.  This morning, I would like to share with you three stories about the change in my relationship with the Bread of Life during this pandemic.  

Act 1

Early Pandemic.  March 2020.  The shutdown happened quickly.  We here at St. Luke’s decided to shut down a day before everything else did.  And we decided to shut down for longer than most other churches–three whole weeks.  

As a lifelong weekly communion Episcopalian, this was hard to wrap my mind around.  Not offering weekly Eucharist ran so contrary to who we are as a denomination–or at least who we have been since 1979, when the current BCP ushered in weekly Eucharist as the norm.  

In those early days of the pandemic, I thought a lot about the church of 50 years ago, when it was more common to share communion monthly instead of weekly.  

And then I thought about the church from several hundred years ago.  When my great, great, great grandfather was a missionary priest and bishop, he rode the circuit to places that might get communion only once or twice a year. 

In those first months of the pandemic, abstaining from the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation could be thought of as an extended fast in an extra-long Lent.  This fasting from the Bread of Life connected me more deeply to previous generations of faithful Christians who were able to grow in their faith without weekly communion.

 Act 2

A few months into the pandemic, some churches were offering Spiritual Communion, or Visual Holy Communion.  I was very against the idea.  I didn’t think one person consecrating bread and wine alone while others watched on a screen was a good and holy thing.  

And yet, some St. Lukers really wanted us to try this.  So I researched best practices and agreed to try it once to see how it went.  

That very first time we did Spiritual Communion, my heart and mind were changed.  I realized it was not simply one person alone in a room with holy, unusable stuff.  It was one person, connected by the Holy Spirit to the others, holding up the Holy for all to see.  That bread and that wine first became the Body and the Blood.  And then, that Body and Blood became an icon in the traditional sense.  Seeing that Body and Blood on screens throughout Durham and beyond invited an encounter with transcendence, invited communion with God — not through our mouths but through our eyes.  

I learned that the Bread of Life does not need to enter our digestive system in order to be an encounter with the holy.

Act 3

More recently, as we have been able to begin meeting in person again, I’ve had a third transformational thought about the Bread of Life.  

As a teen, a wise old monk taught me that every sacrament involves human touch — reminding us that God came into the world as an actual human like us.  God was enfleshed in Jesus, just as we are enfleshed.  And human touch during the sacraments is a reminder of this amazing truth.

You likely remember that pre-COVID I didn’t simply drop a piece of bread into your hand.  I would almost hold your hand as I pressed the wafer into your palm.  That is because I had been taught that every sacrament includes human touch.  And so when I gave you the Bread of Life, I also gave you a moment of human touch.  

Our communion instructions during COVD are very clear:  There must be no touching during the distribution of the bread.  When I first heard this instruction, my heart broke.  Touching communicants’ hands as I offer the Bread of Life is an embodiment, an acting out, of my theology.  God was enfleshed in Jesus.  If we can not touch one another, how can this act be a reminder of God-with-us in Jesus?

And yet, another profound transformation in my understanding has happened.  Now, when I give you the Bread of Life, I hold it up between you and me.  I gaze at it, and through it, to see you.  I see Jesus between me and you.  And if you look, you too see Jesus between me and you.  

And this act helps us live out something we Christians strive to believe.  We want to be able to see Jesus in the face of every person we meet.  And these days, as I hold the bread before you and proclaim it as the Body of Christ, I see Jesus in your face.  

This profound desire of seeing Jesus is lived out in a new way, because of our COVID protocols.  

And you?

Three times so far during the pandemic, my heart and mind and theology has been overturned or cracked open as I integrate new understandings of the Bread of Life.  

How has your heart or mind or theological understanding changed these past 18 months?  How has it been a blessing?  How has it been difficult?   

I invite you to take on this communion practice of gazing at the bread and seeing beyond it to see the face of Christ in the one who offers it, as I do to the one who receives it.  As we continue to practice that here in this room, our practice will allow us to begin doing this same sort of gaze outside of this room, without the aid of a wafer between one face and another.  As we gaze at-and-through the bread of life to every face we encounter, we can more and more see the face of Christ in our neighbor.  

I thank God for the difficult change and growth that has brought me to this place.

I ask God to continue working on our hearts and minds, that we may more clearly see Jesus in the face of the other.

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