By Fr. Sean McDermott
If you had told me three months ago that I would livestream the Easter Mass, I would have laughed and then lost a hefty bet. To put it bluntly, I would sooner have brought a helter-skelter into the nave than a webcam. And yet, given the times and situation, I find myself turning around from the altar to face a laptop on a tall platform instead of a full parish. The shutdown has forced us to do something that we were not prepared for nor had given much thought. Unprecedented circumstances frequently require a rapid response, and hasty actions often proceed from shallow pragmatism rather than theologically coherent reflection. As we confront social isolation, we must move beyond doing what seems right or what people like and consider the theological implications of livestreaming the Mass.
Since starting the livestream, I have received many questions from parishioners. Some loved watching every chance they could get and found comfort from it. Others were more critical--they were confused by watching the Mass on the same device as they watch Netflix. And then there were crazier claims online that a priest can consecrate the elements virtually via livestream. I sat stunned when I read this piece from Christianity Today, supposedly by an Anglican. The author argues that since the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is already mediated to us through the Bread and Wine, one more step of mediation through Zoom does not stop the consecration by the non-physical Holy Spirit. He writes:
Why can’t the signs of God’s presence—the bread and wine—and the signs of our presence—our smiles and voices—signify both the goodness of the embodied world and the reality of the spiritual one? There is nothing inherently Gnostic—disembodied—here. Real bodies. Real bread. And the real presence of the Triune God, on Zoom this weekend and joyfully gathered back together in person once this too has passed.
Hm. I thought, at first, that this must be some ironic piece--that CT is now trying to be like Babylon Bee. I wondered, “How can there be so much confusion over this?” Even though the author completely misunderstands Real Presence (no, it does not mean the Real Presence of the Trinity), his other insight is correct: so much of our lives are directed and lived through a screen that watching a Mass via a screen does not feel strange. But this familiarity is dangerous rather than comforting, for if we are not careful, the Mass will become just one more ‘event’ that is consumed through our screens.
So how should we think about a livestream theologically? First, it is important to note that in this piece, I will be referring to the livestream specifically. Obviously, the priest at the Church is celebrating a valid Mass. That Mass is being said on behalf of the whole parish and is the true worship of God the Father.
But for those at home, watching in the glow of a device, the livestream is not a substitute for going to Church, because it is not sacramental. Even though you see the altar, the priest, the icons, and the incense, you are not participating in the sacramental reality of the Mass. Sacraments depend on physical presence. This fact is a bit astounding, but it brings us back to the reality of Christ’s resurrection in human flesh. When Jesus arose from the grave, he did so in His glorified and perfected body. Think about the Gospels appointed for the Monday and Tuesday of Easter week and the first week after Easter: the accounts emphasize that Christ’s presence was physical. (It is important to note that while I am using that term here to denote the material, tangible presence of Christ in his flesh, physical does not mean the opposite of spiritual. Remember that in Paul’s terminology, the resurrected, glorified body is termed spiritual [cf. 1 Cor 15]! The material body is lifted up and made perfect in a new spiritual reality.)
This helps us understand why the Gospel accounts show that Christ’s physical presence is revealed in his sacramental presence. The sacramental or mystical reality of Christ is never separated from his physical, resurrected body.
And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:30-31).
When one divides the sacramental reality from the physical, thus making it some quasi-spiritual connection, the true nature of the sacraments are lost. Holy Communion requires a priest as altar Christus to consecrate physical bread and wine at a specific space and time. Just like our New Testament accounts, Jesus’s Real Presence is revealed when Jesus, through the person of the priest, breaks bread. Defending a virtual consecration denies the importance of the physical resurrection and the historical accounts of the New Testament.
The connection between sacramental reality and physical reality, however, is not confined to Holy Communion but extends to all the Sacraments. In the Anglican tradition, the Confession and Absolution during the Mass is considered a full, sacramental Absolution. Those in pews who make a sincere Confession, receive an Absolution from the priest. Therefore, those who are watching the service from home over Zoom do not receive a full, sacramental Absolution from the priest when he pronounces the Absolution. They would need to be in his presence at the church.
One objection to this argument is that Jesus healed people from a distance three times in the Gospels (Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter in Mark 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28, the Centurion's servant in Matt 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10, and the Capernaum official’s son in John 4:46-54). If he healed from a distance, why can’t we apply this to the Sacraments today? It would make pastoral work much easier if I could just absolve the penitent over the phone instead of going all the way to church, or consecrate the elements remotely from my couch. However, as in all theological discussion, it is good to distinguish the extraordinary acts of God from His ordinary acts, a lesson I learned well from Jonathan Edwards. God, of course, may do as He pleases: he may save a headhunter from Borneo without the Sacrament of Baptism or heal a devout atheist from the Coronavirus. But we must follow what God has ordained to be the ordinary work of the Church. We must work with the sacramental reality that we have been given within the New Testament accounts and Holy Tradition. Therefore, when Jesus consecrated the Bread and Wine, he took the cup and broke the bread. He handled the bread and chalice in his hands. The Apostles did the same thing. They also healed by the laying on of hands and anointed with oil. The ordinary work of the Church was in person and with material creation.
To summarize, sacraments do not work within a virtual but rather a physical and sacramental reality. This is not a new emphasis, either. For example, priests have long been forbidden to give an Absolution by letter or by phone. The idea of virtual sacraments is an extension of this same issue. In 2002, the Vatican issued a statement on the challenges and opportunities of the internet. Here is part of the conclusion from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications:
Similarly, as noted above, the virtual reality of cyberspace has some worrisome implications for religion as well as for other areas of life. Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith. Here is another aspect of the Internet that calls for study and reflection. At the same time, pastoral planning should consider how to lead people from cyberspace to true community and how, through teaching and catechesis, the Internet might subsequently be used to sustain and enrich them in their Christian commitment.
Given all the above, it might seem that we should bury our head in the sand and avoid any form of technology in the Church! But, given the circumstances, there is a place for livestreaming in order to sustain and enrich parishioners in their Christian commitment. We must admit that watching a Mass on a screen is a form of media consumption.
When you attend the Mass physically at a church, you are participating in a perfect act. It is not a means to an end, but the end itself: true worship of God the Father. This is what God has made us for, and it is the source of true happiness. But when we watch a livestream, we are not participating in the same way. Therefore, a livestream Mass is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
This does not make the act inherently bad: as with most things, there are degrees of goodness within an act. I could buy a hamburger at a fast food joint, wolf it down, and then move on with my day without a second of consideration. This is thoughtless, thankless consumption which will harm both my body and soul. However, I could give thanks before I eat, think about the taste while I eat, and savor the gift I have been given. Both of these acts are consuming a meal, but one is much better than the other.
At its best, therefore, watching a livestream should be the means for Spiritual Communion. Watching the livestream can be a true aid to prayer as you pray through the familiar prayers. The liturgy becomes a guide for the soul as it walks you through the great drama and leads you toward union with God in your Spiritual Communion. You will hear the words of Holy Scripture proclaimed and taught. It is also a reminder of beauty as you witness the priest at the altar with the icons, vestments, incense, and hear the words of the liturgy.
For all these reasons, we will still offer the livestream so long as the governing authorities and public health officials make in-person attendance impossible, but we will not demand it. Some of us are repulsed by screens and watching the Mass on the same device that we watch a movie, and so the livestream acts as a distraction from and not an aid to spiritual communion. For others, watching the Mass has been an incredible comfort and source of devotion, as well as a spur to making one’s Spiritual Communion. One’s relationship with technology in general will influence one’s predilection for a livestream. As we continue to isolate and restrict services, we will need to continue to teach, investigate, and expound upon our new reality.
As I noted at the outset, however, this is a new challenge, and I am continuing to sharpen my theological reasoning on the matter. So please let us know your thoughts in the comments and help us and others think more carefully and faithfully.
Fr. Sean is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar. Fr. Glenn Spencer, Fr. Mark Perkins, and Julie McDermott contributed ideas and edits.