Scripture: Lamentations 3: 22-26, Memorial Sunday. Nigel Bunce
Memorial Sunday: the day each year when we pause to remember people who, in the old words, “we loved but see no more.” But in this year of COVID19, we pause also to think about the loss that our community feels. That’s because we cannot be together — today, or any other Sunday till at least September.
Cemeteries as Story
These comments are as much for the children as for the adults. I think of our beautiful quiet cemetery as a “story”. It’s the story of the people who lie here. But more that, it’s the story of our parish. The headstones represent and remind us of the families who made today possible. The founders of the parish back in 1856. Those who raised this building forty years later. All the parishioners down to today. Their gravestones tell the story of St. George’s.
Cemeteries are places to remember family members or friends – and their stories. Many of us have loved ones who rest far away, not here in this cemetery. The graves of Michelle’s first husband Ralph and my daughter Caroline are in Rockwood Cemetery. My grandparents lie buried in the town where I grew up, in England. So if your loved ones are buried elsewhere, I ask you to let your imaginations transport you this morning to their burial places.
Memories of loved ones
On Memorial Sunday, we remember the blessings we received from those who went before us. None of us can escape the pain when loved ones die. Their deaths continue to sadden us. Yet their love and lives enriched our own. So, I doubt that anyone here who has lost someone that they really loved would say, “I wish I’d never known them, or they’d never existed, so that I’d have avoided the pain of their loss.”
The tapestries of our lives have threads of many colours, bright and dark. But if we focus only on the good memories, we may end up with a memory that’s too good to be true – like curated Instagram pictures of an exotic vacation. It would be exclusively, “I remember when he got that promotion at work. She looked so beautiful on our wedding day. What a wonderful time we had when Aunt So-and-so visited from Scotland.”
But what about, “I remember how awful it was when Mother suffered from Alzheimers. I remember when the basement got flooded and ruined our possessions.” Were we able to see God in the bad times as well as in the good? How did those bad experiences mould our faith and our lives?
Great is thy faithfulness
Today’s Scripture came from the Book of Lamentations. It began, “The steadfast love of the Lord endures for ever; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” These words inspired the writer of that wonderful hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”. The refrain: Great is thy faithfulness. Great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
That Scripture dates from the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem. But even in their years of suffering and loss, that author could still write of God’s mercies and faithfulness. As our reading continued, “The Lord will have compassion … and does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”
God’s care in good times and in bad
On this Memorial Sunday, we remember how God offers us divine care. God walks with us in our times of joy and in our times of sadness. The words of Psalm 23 call these time the green pastures and still waters, or the valley of the shadow of death. God also gives us the wonderful gift of recovery from our griefs.
I’m sure that many of you have said, “I’ll never smile again” after a particularly traumatic loss. But when, weeks or months later, you found yourself smiling, you felt very guilty. It’s as if you had betrayed the one you loved. But the author of Lamentations wrote, “The Lord will have compassion … and does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Bad things happen in our lives, but they are not deliberately visited upon us by God – rather, they are the luck of the draw.
These thoughts bring me to a different loss. That of our Sunday morning church gatherings. For me, especially, for not being able to take Holy Communion together. Bishop Susan has called it the Eucharistic Fast, rather than the Eucharistic Feast. It’s now more than three months, and it will last till at least September.
Because of this, a lot of people are thinking about the idea of “Virtual Communion”. This could be a gathering of individuals on a social media platform, such as Zoom. The participants eat bread and drink wine in front of their computer screen, after a priest recites the prayer of consecration. Another idea is for the priest to celebrate Communion in the church, while those at home watch the sacred ceremony.
I must be clear. Bishop Susan has said explicitly that virtual communion is not acceptable, and I agree with her. So I need to explain why. I found the clearest explanation in an article by Chris Brittain, the Dean of Divinity at Trinity College Toronto.
Brittain wrote that advocates of virtual communion put forward four arguments. To resist this innovation (1) smacks of elitist clericalism, or (2) shows churches that are out-of-date and refuse to innovate. (3) It is a way to give church members access to the sacrament. (4) The Eucharistic identity of the church necessitates virtual communion when in-person celebration is not possible.
Arguments against Virtual Communion
Argument 1, excessive clericalism, is essentially an argument in favour of lay presidency, and doing away with bishops and priests. To which I would counter, “Fine, if that’s the kind of church you want. There are many, many churches of that sort. But they aren’t Anglican as we have known it.”
Argument 2, refusal to innovate, certainly carries weight. People now connect in new ways by social media. So, is a social media gathering less meaningful than an in-person one? Are social media relationships equivalent, in terms of emotional depth, to those made face-to-face?
It’s true that Anglicans have generally been slow to embrace new technology. We at St. George’s did not consider on-line worship until three months ago. We thought that our website and Facebook page were enough. But that argument does not address the question of on-line Communion per se.
Concerning Argument 3, it is COVID, not Bishop Susan, that stands in the way of safe access to Holy Communion. Despite this, we must assume that God is not constrained. Surely, we don’t think that God cannot feed us spiritually without the Eucharist.
Another negative about Eucharist-by-Zoom is that it would restore the medieval practice in which the laity merely had Christ’s Body shown to them momentarily. “Haec est corpus” [Latin: Here is the body] seemed like a magic incantation that the people heard as “hocus pocus”.
Holy Communion requires the “gathered community”
To me, the last argument is the most germane. Holy Communion makes sense only when the gathered community is present. For most Anglicans, Holy Communion is more than re-enactment of the Last Supper. That would be a ‘memorial’. The concept of the real presence of Christ means that Communion is, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, a ‘holy mystery’. US Bishop Michael Curry said recently that mainstream Anglicanism insists that we celebrate the Holy Eucharist in community.
To sum up this year’s Memorial Sunday
So I conclude by closing the circle. Today is Memorial Sunday, when we remember those loved ones who preceded us in death. But it is not the only kind of loss. Right now, the loss of Holy Communion is hard to bear. God comforts us in this moment in time. Just as for the exiled Jews in Babylon, and just as when we find the pain of bereavement so intense. Yet remember this. The exiles returned home. The mourners eventually smile again. And we will at last find our way back to God’s holy table to celebrate the Eucharist as a community. Amen.