By Fr. Glenn Spencer
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and our bodies, to a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…”
The phrase above is taken from the Order of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer on page 81. We know sacrifice to be our bounden duty and service; it is an indelible mark of what it means to be a Christian. From the first generation Church in Jerusalem to our day, this Christological principle of self-sacrificing love has been the sine quo non of our Common Life in Christ. In every age, in every place, and in whatever jurisdiction, the Church has tried to live up to Christ’s pattern of sacrificial love. Our job today is first, to discern what the actual sacrifice is, and then, to offer it up. This has been the question that has driven much of the conversation between the clergy and laity of our parish over the last several weeks.
This sacrifice is different from those of the past. We are not being persecuted for our Faith. And we are not living in the Middle Ages when they did not have hospitals, and the Church had to invent them. We have brilliant medical professionals, and many of them are orthodox Christians, and many of them are your fellow parishioners. They know what they are doing, they know what we should do, and we need to pay attention to them. In doing so, we are now entering into an additional 30 days of sheltering in place. It is an obligation laid upon us all, absolutely necessary, to save the lives of the most vulnerable among us as well as our neighbor.
What specifically is our sacrifice? The sacrifice of the Church of God today is that we cannot come together for the celebration of the Blessed Sacrament. This quarantine is not something that we have chosen, and neither is it an instrument of tyranny enacted by Caesar against the Church. Think of it rather as a nationwide pro-life action. We all miss one another, and we all yearn for the Holy Communion. It is beginning to hurt, and we may begin to feel unmoored and at sea. This begins to feel like a real sacrifice. But the whole world is now in a struggle with a lethal virus, and the only way we can save lives is by following the protocol given to us by our medical professionals.
I submit that those leaders of the Church who flaunt these protocols are morally culpable for the deaths of the people they encourage to gather anyway. Furthermore, they should be required to pay for the medical expenses of those who attend their services and gatherings and become ill. Also, it is rather astonishing that just when we should be championing the care and protection of the weakest among us, some Christians are recommending that we actually sacrifice the weak and the elderly for the good of the economy. It is further ironic that many of these teachers have cited Cyprian’s response to the great plague of his day, while urging Christians to ignore the dangers and care for the dying. Actually there’s nothing in Cyprian’s sermon on the plague of 251 about caring for the dying; rather, Cyprian basically says bad things happen to people all the time, and Christians should not think they are exempt from every state and condition of man, Christian or not. Nor should we personally worry over dying from the plague, or anything else, because when we die we go to heaven. I don’t doubt that Christians under the care of Bishop Cyprian did in fact take care of the sick and dying, but he doesn’t emphasize that.
It was Dionysius of Alexandria, who along with his college of clergy and laity, cared for the sick and dying in a plague that ravaged Alexandria in 252, and they did so because they took it as their duty to God to care for all men whether they were Christian or not. The pagans did not consider it a duty to God or man to nurse the sick and dying. Dionysius describes the situation in which, “at the first onset of the disease, they (the pagans) pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest… hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.” In his Easter Letter in 260, he described the work of his Churches during the plague:
Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.
In Dionysius’ day there were no hospitals, no CDC, no programs to care for the sick, much less the dying. The Church had to invent them. And that she did, and out of her actions over hundreds and hundreds of years have grown all across the world the medical arts and great universities that train men and women in those arts. We cannot return to Dionysius’ day when the medical arts did not exist in order to replicate the work of the Church in 252 A.D. in Alexandria — that is pure fantasy. We have a contemporary office, a present day duty to God to love one another as well as to love our neighbor by following the universal protocols presented to us by medical professionals.
We love the Blessed Sacrament and we are bound to it, and Christ our God gives himself to us concretely and visibly in the un-bloody sacrifice of every Mass. But Jesus is not bound and limited to the Blessed Sacrament. We will not gather together at our old familiar altar on Easter Sunday morning — and that is the global state of Christendom. The whole Church, divided for millennia, is now united as one, really real, global, living Sacrifice. This is our existential, real-life sacrifice and oblation. It is not our duty at this time to figure out ways to avoid the sacrifice, even though we know that what we long for is the truly good. This is a dreadful sacrifice, but we are not abandoned by Christ our God.
And I submit to you that what we are now called to do is to embrace this sacrifice as courageously as blessed Ignatius embraced the wild beasts in the arena of Rome. Embrace the sacrifice and offer it up to our Lord: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls, and our bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…” The Liturgy of the Spiritual Communion is an instrument by which you may over and over again offer up yourselves to the Father of our Lord Jesus.
And as I have said before, please remember that even though that sacrifice is really real, and truly happening in our homes as we are quarantined, they are not merely a myriad of individualistic, atomistic sacrifices, but as the BCP puts it, our many sacrifices offered up become “a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” The many become one. We are like so many grains of wheat being crushed, and by the grace of Christ we are offered up as one Loaf to the Father. Today is our day. Now is our moment to live faithfully to Christ, to do good to all men, and to pray for the salvation of the whole world.
We will continue to teach, to pray, and to offer up the Mass at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday Mornings. But the doors will not be open. We are asking our parishioners to stay home and to continue to say Morning Prayer and the Liturgy for Spiritual Communion each Sunday at 10:00 a.m. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the harbinger of the end of Lent. But as it turns out, this season has become and will continue to be a shriven season for us all: shriven of palms, shriven of the close physical presence of one another, and shriven of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist. But be sure of this: we are not shriven of Christ and his love for us.
Fr. Glenn Spencer is Rector of All Saints Anglican in Charlottesville, VA.